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Should we buy into this?

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Designated hitter Greg Vaughn, one of the few veterans left on the team older than 30, says the Rays will be worth watching because . . . ‘‘it’s baseball.’’

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002

There is nothing quite like a pennant race. Nothing matches the electricity that rides through the ballpark, game after game, pitch after pitch. There is nothing like the daily anticipation as an essential team plays essential games in a drive toward the postseason.

Around here, of course, we'll have to take baseball's word for it.

There will be no championships won around Tampa Bay this year. No one will hoist trophies into the air. The area around the mound will remain dance-free.

Around here, no one is going to threaten Barry Bonds' record, or Pete Rose's, or Joe DiMaggio's. No one on the Devil Rays is going to win the home-run chase, or the batting title, or the Cy Young. Memorabilia collectors are not gathering around the clubhouse door looking for scraps.

There is no old hope in the form of a returning star. There is no new hope in the name of a big-time free agent. There isn't even a good scandal to stir interest, for that matter. Around here, hope is still a concept that toils in the low minors.

So, as the 2002 season approaches, perhaps the biggest question about the Rays is this:

Why, in the name of Abner Doubleday, should you buy a ticket?

"Because it's baseball," Greg Vaughn says. "Because you root for the home team."

"Because we're an exciting team," Brent Abernathy says. "Because when we start winning, you don't want to come in late on the bandwagon."

"Because we're going to play our guts out," Joe Kennedy says. "And besides, you can buy beer."

For the fans of Tampa Bay, is that enough? Well, of course not.

But in some ways, it's as much as the Rays have ever had.

In a season of no promise, and no promises, there is this: There is a game, and there are a bunch of kids who are going to play it with the respect it deserves. They're going to get their uniforms dirty. They're going to attack and buzz around someone's face and generally make pests of themselves.

No, it isn't enough.

Yes, it is better.

If you have been paying attention, and some of you have not, then you know that last year's Rays didn't have a shot at the title, either. Or the Rays before that, or the Rays before that. Around here, expectations have never been big enough to grip with two hands.

Yet, in the past, there has been something unsettling about the way the Rays' veterans carried themselves, as if somehow they were above the mess that surrounded them. Have you ever been big-timed by someone producing small-time?

The worst part about the free-agent busts of the past couple of seasons is that those players didn't play the game as much as they tossed their resumes toward it. They walked around with tortured looks that said they were determined not to have any fun and determined not to allow any.

Given the choice, then, give me the effort. Give me a kid who plays as if today matters. If a team is going nowhere, can't it at least go there hard? And, frankly, should we even have to ask?

Look, when you examine baseball, a sport sick from its own economics, the lack of playoff hopes isn't that unusual. The wait-till-next-year dream died some time ago. There are maybe a half-dozen teams that might win a championship, and everyone else is just another franchise preparing for just another season. Most of them, like the Rays, have about as good a chance of winning the Stanley Cup as the World Series.

Until baseball can cure itself, then, most fans are going to have to settle for something less. That goes for around here, too. Yes, the Rays have cooked slower than most of us would prefer. Yes, the most important statistic the franchise has continues to be the team payroll.

Yet, there is an energy that is nice to see. There is an approach that is fresh and fun, an invitation to watch Rays baseball grow up as these kids do the same. Steve Cox can swing the bat. Brent Abernathy is a nice little second baseman. Jason Tyner can run. Toby Hall is going to be special.

Why watch them play?

"Because people like pulling for the underdog," Steve Cox says.

"Because it's easy to like this team," said general manager Chuck LaMar. "Because most of us can relate to young guys who show up for work every day without any guarantees."

"Because when we do start to win, you want to say, "I knew these kids when ... ," said owner Vince Naimoli.

Why watch them play?

Because they don't pop wheelies on their motorcycles and then snarl at you for asking how they were hurt. Because they don't swipe each other's gloves. Because where else are you going to get a Jason Tyner bobblehead doll? Because, let's face it, you have to gather somewhere to talk about the Bucs' offseason.

Why watch them play?

Maybe because of this: Maybe because they are too young to recognize what they do not yet possess. Maybe because they look at this schedule, loaded with games against the Yankees and the Red Sox, and resist the temptation to ask the commissioner to choose up sides again. After all, the Rays were 35-39 in the second half last season. The players see fewer limits on themselves than most of us would place upon them.

"Oh, yeah, I think we can win half," Cox said. "Why can't we win half?"

Why watch a bunch of players who talk about tomorrow? Because it's better than listening to them talk about how good they were yesterday.

That alone may make it worth risking one eye.

Back to the Rays

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