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Rays rally behind McRae

With manager's job status up in air, his players praise him, saying he's not to blame for poor season.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

BOSTON -- There are any number of reasons the Rays have had such a horrid season. But players and coaches say there is no reason to blame No. 11 -- manager Hal McRae -- much less to fire him.

"I don't understand how people can say it's Hal's fault," pitcher Tanyon Sturtze said. "That's really funny and baffling to me that people are even throwing his name into that. Why should Hal be fired? What did Hal do wrong to deserve to be fired?

"If people are going to point fingers and blame anybody, then blame us. Blame the players. We're the ones that went out there and stunk for 100 and whatever games."

McRae, who has managed the Rays to a 113-195 record (.367) since taking over for Larry Rothschild in April 2001, is signed for next season at $700,000, but it may be an upset if he makes it through this week.

Managing general partner Vince Naimoli said the decision of whether to retain McRae is up to general manager Chuck LaMar, but Naimoli's lack of public support for McRae is significant and telling.

LaMar promised McRae a prompt decision but has not set a timetable except that it will be after the season, another bad sign for McRae and his coaches. LaMar and Naimoli spoke Saturday and plan to talk again today, but an announcement may not come until after a Tuesday morning meeting of the team owners.

"It doesn't sound good," centerfielder Randy Winn said.

McRae has not complained about the process or lobbied for his job, aside from saying he would prefer to have his contract extended if he were to return.

"I'm not anxious," McRae said. "I've got a contract for next year. I don't have to be anxious about whether I'm back or not."

Several veterans said that there should not be a question, that McRae was severely handicapped by the youthful makeup of the team, which included three Rule 5 draft picks who never had played above the Class A level, and did about as well as could be expected.

"When you have two or three bullets and everybody else has 12, it's tough," outfielder Greg Vaughn said. "They could bring anybody in here -- Joe Torre, Lou Piniella, Tony La Russa -- but until we get better as a whole, we're just outnumbered right now."

"We just don't have a very good team," outfielder Ben Grieve said. "There's nothing he can do about it. You could put any manager in the major leagues on our team and we would have lost 100 games."

That the Rays still have been able to play so many close games -- 72 decided by one or two runs -- is a credit to McRae, some say.

"I think Hal has done an outstanding job," said pitching coach Jackie Brown, one of two coaches signed for next season. "We have lost what, 105 games, and there's not one player in this clubhouse who has quit. If that's not a compliment to Hal McRae, I don't know what would be."

Among the criticisms of McRae, by those who watch from afar, are that he appears too laid-back, even disinterested, and that his in-game substitutions and strategy are illogical.

Those who see him up close couldn't disagree more.

Players say they know the losses are tough on McRae, one of the game's fiercest competitors as a player, but his outward calm is needed and welcomed.

"He's remained very calm in a season, I don't want to say turbulent, but where it would be very easy to lose your cool," Winn said. "I guess that's what some people don't like. But I think he's provided a positive atmosphere."

"It's been such a bad season here," shortstop Chris Gomez said. "He's made it as easy as possible to go out and play relaxed."

Critics could suggest that means he's taking it too easy on the players, but catcher John Flaherty said the kid gloves are appropriate and necessary.

"With a young team you can not look down at your manager and see any sense of panic or frustration or whatever," Flaherty said. "You need to see that steadying influence, and he's been there all year. ...

"If anything, I would say Hal's done an excellent job as far as not panicking. He's been very professional as far as the direction he wants the club to go in. He's stressed that we go out and compete and battle. I can't say enough about how he's handled the team."

Strategically, McRae has limited options. And no rational person could dispute his reluctance to call on the bullpen given the unpredictable performances he has gotten.

Some players blamed themselves or the team as a whole, but none -- no surprise -- was willing to go on the record and blame the front office.

But there is a strong feeling in the clubhouse that McRae should not take the blame, or pay the price by losing his job.

"It's not his fault," Winn said. "We've all had a hand in it. It's not his fault. It's not even a half his fault, or a quarter his fault."

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