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Flaherty playing role of mentor on bench

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

BOSTON -- John Flaherty's view of the game has changed.

So has his perspective.

Flaherty, the team's 34-year-old former starting catcher, doesn't get behind the plate much anymore. Friday's start was his fourth of the season's first 22 games, and the schedule isn't likely to pick up much as star-in-the-making Toby Hall plays five or six days a week.

So Flaherty spends most of his 11th major-league season doing extensive pregame work to stay sharp and trying to help where he can on the bench, in the bullpen and around the clubhouse.

"I've tried to think more about my teammates than anything else," Flaherty said. "They don't want to see me sitting on the bench moping around or ... moaning that I'm not in there. I'm not in there for a reason, so when I do get in there I try to do the best I can, but there's no bitterness.

"I'm in a situation this year. You hope that something gives, but until it does you just have to keep yourself ready. I find myself trying to keep other guys from getting bitter more than anything.

"Obviously it's different for me at this point in my career than for other guys at the points in their careers. They're looking for opportunities and all that. I've had my opportunities -- though I'm looking for one more -- but I've had mine. So you can feel their pain a little bit, so to speak.

"I think when you don't play you see the big picture more than when you're playing. ... You see a lot more about how guys act on the bench, if they're frustrated because they're not playing, or if they're down because they're not playing well. It's been a little interesting to be, not the calming influence, but to try and pick a guy up when he's down and notice when he's down and being able to maybe keep him going a little bit until he does get in there and do well."

In the final season of a three-year, $9-million deal some thought was a bargain at the time, Flaherty isn't sure how much longer he wants to play before starting what -- if any broadcasting execs have been listening the past few years -- should be a promising career on the TV side of the game.

But it's clear he doesn't want it to end this way.

A trade to a contender makes sense, but there hasn't been a deal to make and may not be until close to the July 31 trade deadline, if then.

That doesn't leave Flaherty much except staying physically ready and trying to keep a mental edge.

"Physically it's been easier that I thought, but mentally it's been tougher," he said. "You try to give yourself a chance to be successful by preparing. If I do that all year and an opportunity presents itself here or someplace else, I feel like I'll be ready to step in right away."

CROWD CONTROL: The Rays' average home attendance of 14,047 a game is lowest in the AL, third worst in the majors and, to put it mildly, disappointing.

The usual excuses are readily available: It's early in the season, the kids are still in school, the home schedule hasn't been attractive.

With a large low-priced seating area (the Beach is $5 for adults, $2 for kids and seniors), a new value meal ($3.75 for a hot dog, soft drink and Cracker Jack) and low-priced parking (a $5 stadium lot), some might say the Rays have done their part.

But managing general partner Vince Naimoli said they need to do more.

"I think there is always more the team could do, and the thing that keeps coming back to me is more education and awareness," Naimoli said. "There are still people out there who don't know -- and we haven't done a good job communicating it -- how inexpensive it is to come to a game here. We have to continue to get that message out, and I think over the course of time it will get out."

NICE GESTURE: Under the new Tuesday's Champion program headed by community relations director Liz-Beth Lauck, the Rays will host a child each week selected by the Children's Dream Fund or Make-A-Wish Foundation. The child will be the honorary bat boy or girl, meet players, throw out the first pitch and receive Catchers Club seats behind home plate.

HOO-RAYS: Rays PR staffers are retrieving foul balls hit into the vacant upper deck and donating them to youth organizations. ... The independently run Web site offers an interesting collection of opinions in a special report: "What's wrong with Rays? And can it be fixed?" Hint: Their conclusion is the problem starts at the top.

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