ST. PETERSBURG -- Just one day after the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup to officially close the NHL season, four Tampa Bay Lightning players tried their hand at another sport.
The Rays welcomed Steven Stamkos, Nate Thompson, Teddy Purcell and Mike Smith for batting practice before Thursday's game against the Red Sox.
"This is something that I have dreamed about, getting a chance to hit [batting practice]," Stamkos said. "These guys have been great in letting us out here."
Stamkos and Smith were the best hitters of the four, hitting multiple balls to the warning track in left field. The highlight of the session came from Smith, who used the last pitch of batting practice to hit the only home run.
Smith followed it up by trotting around the bases to celebrate his accomplishment, tossing his cap toward the mound before being met by his three teammates at home plate. They finished it up by putting a shaving cream pie in the face of Smith to close out the experience.
"[Stamkos and Smith] really swung the bat well," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But the thing that really stands out is the competitive side of them and just how athletic they are."
Rays promote local reading programs
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays were out in full force promoting the importance of reading books before Thursday's game against the Red Sox.
The day started at the Boys & Girls Club of Suncoast in Pinellas Park, where a luncheon was held to raise money for the local Boys & Girls Clubs Summer Reading Camp. Infielders Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac, outfielder Sam Fuld and pitcher Cesar Ramos made an appearance to represent the Rays.
"We're very fortunate to play the game of baseball, and it's kind of a way to give back to the kids and basically interact with them," Rodriguez said.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Suncoast partnered with the Rays to hold the fundraiser. A spokesperson for the event said about $12,500 was raised through proceeds from tickets to the luncheon.
About seven miles down the road, third baseman Evan Longoria surprised a group of about 100 kids to kick off the "Reading with the Rays" program at the main St. Petersburg Public Library.
The three-time All Star read "My Lucky Hat" and "Just Like Josh Gibson" to the children and emphasized the importance of picking up a book.
"[Reading] is the groundwork for your life," Longoria said. "You can learn so much from reading books, and you can learn a lot on your own. Obviously, school and teachers can teach you a lot of things, but you can go out and find a book about anything at the library."
The program encourages children to read and rewards them for doing so. If they put in 24 hours of reading during the summer, the Rays, in turn, give them one free ticket to a game at Tropicana Field.
"I think we underestimate the impact we have on the people within the community," Longoria said.
Francona speaks highly of Damon
ST. PETERSBURG -- Carl Crawford has received all of the attention in his return to Tropicana Field, but Johnny Damon is also lining up against a former team.
Damon was a part of the Boston organization for four seasons and was coached by current Red Sox manager Terry Francona for two years. Now with the Rays, the 37-year-old still looks sharp in the eyes of his former manager.
"[Damon] is in great shape," Francona said. "It's not just luck. I mean, I know he's blessed with a good body. But you have to do stuff. And he probably downplays it, but you have to get after it to keep being successful with that much mileage. He gets banged around pretty good."
In his four seasons with Boston, Damon accumulated 730 of his 2,643 career hits and 98 of his 392 career stolen bases. The outfielder also won a World Series with the organization in 2004.
But with the end of Damon's career looming, many have questioned if those numbers are good enough for the Hall of Fame. He entered Thursday's game needing 357 more hits to reach 3,000.
"Regardless of whether he is [a Hall of Famer] or not, I guess I hope he is because I love him," Francona said. "It's hard not to like him when he's on your team. He's a consummate [pro]. There were days he was so beat up and he'd call me in the morning and say, 'Don't not play me.' He said, 'I'll figure this out.' Then he'd go out there and find a way to help you win."
The Rays will wear the home uniforms of the 1951 Tampa Smokers of the Florida International League as they "turn back the clock" against the Cardinals on July 2. St. Louis will sport its road gray jerseys from 1953. This will be the ninth time in franchise history that the Rays have worn throwback uniforms.
The Rays announced the signing of outfielder Kes Carter on Thursday. Carter was the 56th overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, and Tampa Bay's eighth selection.
Anthony Chiang is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.