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If all is rosy, McHale can be a good friend

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Seemingly embarrassed by the flowing praise from "my friend, my colleague and my mentor" Vince Naimoli, John McHale insisted -- on his way out the door last week -- he really didn't do much during his 10 months with the Rays.

Technically, that might be correct. But perceptually, he made a big difference.

True, there had been talk even before last season, well before McHale's May hiring, of trading away the veterans and getting back to a youth movement.

What McHale did was make sure the plan was implemented. And that no one interfered.

"This is an organization that has been known throughout baseball as an outstanding baseball operation that has a minor-league system full of promising talent," McHale said. "It was simply a case of organizing the direction in a way that everyone understood it ought to be organized and sending the franchise on a course everyone understood was the proper course.

"That was to rededicate ourselves to player development, to internal development, and to try to put promising young players on the field and allow them to learn to play and then learn to win at the major-league level, and to explain to our fans what we were doing. We needed to reassume the identity of a 4- and 5-year-old franchise."

The question now is whether the Rays will show enough restraint to stay on the path -- Naimoli said they "absolutely" will -- and whether they will be patient enough to see it through, deep-pocketed enough to finance more lean years, thick-skinned enough to not snap at the criticism if it doesn't work, or work quickly enough.

If McHale truly feels the Rays are as stable and viable as he said they are, if he truly is a friend to the Tampa Bay baseball effort, he should be able to help them in his new post by spreading the good word.

"I look at that as one of my prime opportunities," McHale said. "One of the things we suffer from is an oversimplified caricature in the national press and I looked forward to being a spokesman as I am able for the benefits and the promise of this community and this franchise."

RUNNING MAN: Manager Hal McRae understands baseball's desire to speed up games and will do what he can to help. Just don't expect to see him sprinting to the mound to make pitching changes. "There's no sprint left," he said. "I sprinted until I was 42. It's time for me to slow down. There were too many hard slides into second base."

REMEMBER HIM?: John Burkett never pitched a regular-season game for the Rays, but the decision to release him out of spring training 2000 is one they have yet to live down.

As Burkett went on to two successful seasons with the Braves (including an All-Star appearance) and a two-year, $11-million contract with the Red Sox, the story keeps coming back to how he wasn't good enough to pitch for the Rays.

"Here I was," Burkett said, "I just got cut by Tampa, and (Atlanta manager Bobby Cox) is saying, 'I always wanted you on my team. You pitch like we like guys to pitch.' " The Braves have even brought Burkett's name into conversations about why they made a two-year, $8-million commitment to Vinny Castilla, who was let go by the Rays in May but resurrected his career with Houston. "I mean, that's the same organization John Burkett got released by two years prior," Braves general manager John Schuerholz told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "After examining the circumstances, examining the situation and then seeing how he responded in Houston, we were completely at ease with our decision to pursue him."

AND HIM?: Outfielder Kenny Kelly, the ex-Tampa Catholic multisport standout, has made a good impression with the Mariners, who bought him from the Rays last spring for a reported $1-million. "I loved the idea of playing at home," Kelly said. "They say they have money troubles there, but if they had kept me, they'd have sold an extra 50 tickets every game. That would have helped them out. But I like the way this has turned out for me."

HOO-RAYS: There are three Rays among Baseball America's top 100 prospects: No. 18 Josh Hamilton, No. 57 Carl Crawford, No. 59 Dewon Brazelton. ... Not that the Rays are too Yankee-phobic, but their latest season-ticket miniplan includes opening night, closing day and the nine games against New York.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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