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It's time to adjust

John Flaherty might be a backup, or he might be traded. He just knows he won't be the Rays starting catcher.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2002

John Flaherty might be a backup, or he might be traded. He just knows he won't be the Rays starting catcher.

ST. PETERSBURG -- It seemed like such a perfect story.

John and Allyn Flaherty decided in mid 1997 they'd build their home and their family in the Tampa Bay area. During the November expansion draft, in an amazing coincidence, John was traded to the Rays. Their first child, Kristen, was born five days later. After struggling in 1998, John rebounded strongly in 1999. Enticed by the Rays' plans to bring in big-name veterans and become competitive in 2000, he bypassed free agency and signed a three-year, $9-million contract, excited about the chance to be part of their initial success.

"I was comfortable with the contract and comfortable with the organization and the way they were going," Flaherty says now. "Obviously that winter we all had a lot to be excited about, the bringing in of Vinny Castilla, the Hit Show, all they money they spent. Everything looked up.

"And somewhere from all that excitement in the spring of 2000 to now, it's been kind of a steady spiral downhill."

The decline was the culmination of several circumstances. Flaherty had a bad season in 2000 and a worse one last year. The Rays changed direction and decided to go young and inexpensive. Toby Hall developed into a sure-fire prospect.

Now it's not such a feel-good tale anymore.

From a practical standpoint, it probably would be best for Flaherty and the Rays to part ways soon.

Flaherty, 34, stops short of saying he wants to be traded, but it's clear he would welcome a deal, especially to a contending team (and particularly in his home state of New York). The Rays won't say they are looking to move him, but it's obvious they would like to shed the $3.25-million salary he'll make to backup Hall.

The problem is it won't be easy to make such a deal.

Because Flaherty struggled last season and then missed the final month with a herniated disc in his neck, interested teams are going to want to first see him play. But because the Rays want Hall to be the No. 1 catcher, they only plan to use Flaherty a game or two a week once the season starts.

What that all means is the next four weeks of exhibitions, when Flaherty is scheduled to play every other day once his sore groin heals, could be key as a half-dozen teams look to improve at catcher.

"I'm at the point now where I'm trying to re-establish myself and just get my game behind the plate and hitting to where it's been before," Flaherty said. "If it gets back to that point, then if a team is looking for a trade you would hope that you might be considered.

"I'm also very realistic in knowing that with the kind of money I'm making it's not going to be the easiest deal to pull off. So I guess I'm not holding my breath for it."

After a winter of extensive exercises and rehabilitation, Flaherty said the neck condition is "a nonissue." He says he is in great overall shape, having dropped about 20 pounds and putting back on about eight of muscle. Through the first three weeks of camp drills, he has been aggressive and impressive at and behind the plate.

"I think if John shows that he's healthy and is productive, I think the conversations will come to us," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said.

"He's proven he can be a fine major-league catcher when healthy, and there's always a market for someone with his leadership skills and ability."

"I don't want to see him leave," Hall said, "but I know he'd be where he deserves to be, a No. 1 catcher somewhere."

If there is no trade, then Flaherty -- one of four remaining original Rays -- won't have much choice but to make the best of it. He has always been a consummate professional, and promises he won't change just because he's relegated to a reserve role.

So far, he has handled the situation well, drawing praise from LaMar, manager Hal McRae, and veteran teammates such as Greg Vaughn.

Probably most appreciative has been Hall.

"He's made it a lot easier; it could have been a lot worse," Hall said.

"He's been awesome. He's done so much for me. He's like a brother to me in a sense."

Flaherty's pleasantness, however, should not be mistaken for happiness about the situation.

When he first lost his starting job to Mike DiFelice last May, Flaherty went through the bitterness and frustration that comes with being told what you're doing on the field is not good enough.

Now he has to accept knowing that no matter what he does he's likely to start the season on the bench.

"Let's put it this way -- it's going to be a big adjustment for me," Flaherty said. "I'm going to have to find a way to adjust, probably more mentally than physically, on how to be able to sit there and watch and not get frustrated and all those other things and be supportive and prepare myself for the one or two days I'm going to be playing.

"I don't think anyone is going to be happy sitting around watching, but it's not a matter of me being happy. It's a matter of what's best, what situation am I in, and what can I do to help out whenever I'm called upon."

McRae has explained the situation to Flaherty and told him he is free to express his displeasure. He also reminded him he is welcome to try to prove people wrong.

"He has to keep the edge and he needs something to motivate him each day when he comes to the ballpark," McRae said.

"In his case, it's to prove to baseball that he's not a backup."

Flaherty said he'd like to play a few more seasons and is intrigued by the opportunity to be on the open market at the end of the year. But he also said he has the financial security for his family -- which includes three children -- that he doesn't need to keep playing if the situation is not appealing.

It seems hard, when you go back to the September 1999 day in New York when he signed the new contract, to have imagined it would have come to this.

But the team didn't do as well as Flaherty expected it to, losing 92 games in 2000 and 100 last year and discarding the very veterans with whom Flaherty planned on playing when he agreed to the contract.

And Flaherty didn't do as well as the team expected him to, his production dropping from a .278 average, 14 homers and 71 RBIs in 1999 to .261-10-39 in 2000 and .238-4-29 last year, with his defense also slipping.

To his credit, he blames himself more than anyone.

"If I was playing the way I played in '99, either A: I wouldn't be here because I would have been a more tradeable player, or B: I would still be here in the same role I was in," he said.

"The bottom line is that if you're not performing, you're not going to play."

He is confident he can resurrect his game. And maybe, when you think of how the Flahertys, and their children, and their children's children, are set financially for life, and when you consider how excited the Rays are to be building around young players, maybe the story can have a good ending after all.

"I think when things are not going the way you hoped they would personally and as a team it's human nature to be frustrated or ticked off at some people, whether they be managers, coaches or other players," Flaherty said.

"(Former manager) Larry Rothschild treated me great during the time we spent together and Hal has been very fair to me. ... Chuck and I have had a professional relationship, I guess you'd call it, but like any other relationship there were some bumps in the road. But at the end of the day my family will thank Chuck LaMar. We spent four years here already, he brought me in here to start this whole thing off, and along the way made my family very financially stable. Mr. Naimoli, the same thing.

"At the end of the day the Devil Rays were very fair to me. As a player, you hope to provide a return on that investment. Sometimes I have, sometimes I haven't. But it hasn't been because of a lack of hard work."

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