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Now, Rays get to start over

RED SOX 11, RAYS 8: After 106th loss, front office talks optimistically about next season and onfield personnel wonder where they'll be.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 30, 2002


BOSTON -- The Rays season ended Sunday in defeat and in contradiction, but at least it ended, with no makeup game needed in New York.

There were a major league-high 106 losses, serious questions and mixed signals about Hal McRae's future and a pronouncement from managing general partner Vince Naimoli that despite all the troubles, the team was on the verge of being competitive.

"We're real close," Naimoli said.

The 11-8 loss to the Red Sox meant the Rays finished tied with Detroit for the worst record in the major leagues at 55-106, and though they still get the first pick in the June draft, that is little consolation to a season all involved described as disappointing.

Significant changes are expected, starting with the possible firing of manager McRae and his coaching staff, which could be announced this afternoon or Tuesday.

McRae walked out of the Fenway Park visitors clubhouse late Sunday afternoon knowing only that he has a $700,000 contract for next season, having not been told if he'll be brought back or when he'll find out.

His three days of detailed talks with general manager Chuck LaMar about next season made it seem as if he would return. An absence of public support from team officials and their decision to delay any announcement until after the season was over makes it seem more like he won't.

"I just don't know," McRae said. "I'm here until I'm not here."

Naimoli said the decision, as well as the timing, was up to LaMar, but "it's the kind of thing that you want to make a speedy decision on either one way or another."

Naimoli declined to make anything more than a tepid assessment of McRae, who has managed the Rays to a 113-196 record since replacing Larry Rothschild in April 2001.

"There's no question Hal's a good person and a good baseball man," Naimoli said outside the clubhouse. "There's no question about that. But Chuck has to comment on the other parts of that."

LaMar, reached by telephone Sunday night, said he had not made a decision and did not know when he would make one. He and Naimoli are likely to talk today, which would be a prerequisite to any announcement.

"I'm continuing to do everything I can to make this organization better," LaMar said. "That's all I can say."

McRae said he wasn't anxious about his own fate, as he'd be paid either way, but was concerned that his coaches find out soon so they don't miss out on the opportunity to land other jobs if necessary.

Glenn Ezell, Tom Foley, Billy Hatcher and Lee May don't have contracts for next year. The other two, Jackie Brown and Milt May, are signed for one more year.

"They need to know," McRae said. "As a matter of fact, they need to know today."

Ezell said it would only be "common courtesy" for the Rays to make a decision as soon as possible, especially as other teams, such as the Cubs and Brewers, already are making changes. Brown said: "There's just a professional way to do it."

Hatcher and Foley, who has been with the Rays in various capacities since their startup, also are wondering what's going to happen. "Anybody would like to know their status," Foley said.

Everyone involved in the Rays' performance this season agreed it was disappointing and said better things were ahead.

They'd pretty much have to be given that the Rays became the first team since the 1978-79 Blue Jays to have consecutive 100-loss seasons and seventh in the past 25 years to lose as many as 106.

Naimoli, though, is talking about a quantum leap.

"My technical and business training shows me to look at statistics and trends," Naimoli said. "We had 40 games where we had the winning or tying run to the plate in the ninth inning, 10 games which we lost after leading with one or two outs in the ninth, 11 walkoff losses, 19 extra-inning games.

"So if you look at it, we're real close. We also saw the evolution of some prospects into everyday major-league players, and we have more to go certainly. But if you look at the trends and statistics, we are close. A guy told me once, before you win you've got to be competitive. So I think we're to the point of being competitive, and we have to turn the next corner."

McRae talks about a more reasonable plan, of improving by bringing in a few moderately priced veterans to fill holes where they don't have prospects, and he'd like the opportunity to come back and see how it works.

"There's nothing major about it, and that's the beauty of it," McRae said. "You don't change your plan and you compete at the same time. And you help speed up the development of your players by winning, by players showing them how to win, setting a good example, helping guys develop, which you don't do when you lose. I don't think it would be tough at all."

LaMar said that "no one would have guessed we would struggle in the win column as much as we have," but that they knew it was going to be a rough year because they were committed to using many of their young players and that their development led to some "extremely bright spots."

Besides the manager and the coaching staff, LaMar has several key personnel decisions to make, such as whether they can afford to retain their six arbitration eligible players (Steve Cox, Ryan Rupe, Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson, Esteban Yan and Winn), whether to pick up an option on shortstop Chris Gomez and which prospects can be counted on for next season.

"There's definitely going to be some changes," Winn said.


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