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McHale upbeat about Rays' future

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The joke around town is that the Glazer boys and the Lightning suits managed to bungle their way to a significant accomplishment last week -- they made the Rays look good.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The joke around town is that the Glazer boys and the Lightning suits managed to bungle their way to a significant accomplishment last week -- they made the Rays look good.

While their sudden standing as the Tampa Bay area's most stable major sports franchise isn't likely to last, the Rays would like you to believe that their overall global positioning has improved.

Chief operating officer John McHale Jr. agreed last week to look to the future and, in what some previously would have considered an upset, reported it to be both promising and bright.

"We have exciting young players and they're going to be fun to watch," McHale said. "Our fans are going to be able to watch them get better and watch them become, in many cases, major-league stars. I think we're continuing what's already here, a focus on our fans and their comfort and enjoyment. And we are determined to make Tropicana Field a fun building to watch baseball in."

McHale, who joined the Rays in May after distinguished terms with the Rockies and the Tigers, has been immersed in myriad issues. He is reluctant to accept any individual credit, but his most significant decision probably has been committing the Rays to building with young players -- "signing, developing and moving to the major leagues through our own system good, young talent."

He praised general manager Chuck LaMar for the job he has done in carrying out the plan so far and said the elements for organizational success -- including financial health, a ballpark that can provide a positive experience, and an understanding of the franchise's role in the community -- are in place.

All that's needed now is for the team to win more games, and for more fans to come watch.

About the only thing McHale didn't seem certain about in an hourlong discussion with the Times was his own future with the team.

Here are excerpts:

Q : Why should someone who wasn't a fan last year buy a ticket this season?

A: I think we clarified our route to competitive success and we formulated a plan that a general manager can understand and execute, and we promised him this was going to be our commitment for the foreseeable future. Eventually, and sooner than later preferably, you need to win. That's what you owe your fans, and that's what you owe your sponsors, and that's why we're in this game. But if you can't win immediately, you have to at least be able to explain to your fans what you're doing and how you're getting there

Q: What is being done to make going to a game at Tropicana Field more fun?

A: When we win and when we have a sizable crowd that's into the game, this is a pretty fun place to be. And it is an extremely fun place to be when all that is happening and it's pouring outside, which it often is in the summertime. We're doing some things to try and foster a positive crowd experience in the course of what seats are going to be open regularly (by closing the upper deck) and how we're going to sell our tickets. We're trying to redouble our efforts to make sure the ballpark is clean and that it's an attractive place to be and that the concourses and restrooms are well-attended. And we have created a vice president of employee and guest relations (Jose Tavarez) who will always be here moving throughout the stands and is empowered to address problems on the spot.

Q : There has been a lot of uncertainty and rumors suggesting the team has severe financial difficulties. What is the organization's financial standing?

A: We're just fine. We're healthy. We're vital. We are well-prepared to undertake the course we have charted for ourselves this year.

Q : But what about reports of massive cutbacks, of bills going unpaid for months, of the franchise bordering on bankruptcy?

A: Not true. Exaggerations. Unsourced, I might add.

Q : Has the image of the team in the community improved?

A: I think it's better. It isn't where we want it to be and it isn't going to be until we make some significant improvements on the field. People that are casual fans, which are most people, tend to think of you as a reflection of your record. We continue to do the many good things (in the community) that we've always done here, but that alone doesn't get you where you want to go.

Q : When you took this job there was a perception that managing general partner Vince Naimoli was going to take a less visible, less prominent role, that you were going to basically run the team. Has that arrangement worked out as you expected, and are you committed to this job and this team long-term?

A: Whatever the perception was, I knew from my time in Major League Baseball that you get comfortable with each other and you need time to work side by side and see how your styles mesh, and I think that's what happened here. This is, however, a volatile game in a volatile economy. I'm happy to be here and proud of what we've been able to accomplish so far and I think that we're on the right road. However, you never know what the future holds.

I don't think the good things that have happened here or the good things that will happen in the future are necessarily attributable to me or dependent on my involvement.

Q : That makes it sound like you might not be here long-term?

A: I don't want to characterize it that I will or that I won't. I think the franchise is healthy and the franchise is going to be successful.

Q : What about your wife and children, who continue to live in Michigan?

A: I'll continue to commute until the school year's over, then look to move them down.

Q : The emphasis has been on cutting player payroll; what will determine when you can start adding?

A: I would foresee this franchise in this market working as similar franchises in similar markets work in that some success on the field will generate additional ticket sales and additional sponsorship interests, and when that happens we'll be able to take another step forward. If that's done right, then it will have the same kind of effect, and as you're able to do more, you can achieve greater results and take bigger steps and go further.

Q : So basically, the key to the entire organization's success is winning more games?

A: That would create additional revenue streams we would look at to use in the baseball department. You have certain facts of life when you draw 1.2-million (fans, as the Rays did in 2001). We do punch above our weight here in corporate sales, and those sponsorships are what have kept us among the mid-level clubs in local revenues so it's very important for us to continue. But the great strides we need to make are in ticket sales.

Q : What would make this season a success, 12,000 season tickets? Two-million fans? Eighty-one wins?

A: All those things. Any one of those things. ... We ought to be able to achieve our overall financial goals with some hard work and a little bit of fortune, some smiles from the gods of baseball. But there's no sense in saying what will make us feel we've been successful this year other than to say we need another big step forward in the development of our club.

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