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Both sides upbeat after Rays, Lou finally meet

Club officials and Piniella plan more sessions this week, though manager's agent still hopes to have a chance to talk with the Mets.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Lou Piniella met with top Devil Rays officials early Saturday morning in Tampa and liked what he heard, liked it enough, according to agent Alan Nero, that there were no concerns about a potential deal with the Rays.

But he'd still like to talk with the Mets.

Nero said the two-hour session was a productive start to talks with the Rays, "about as much as we could accomplish on the first date."

There was a thorough discussion about baseball issues such as philosophy, responsibilities and expectations, as well as the parameters of a contract, probably for three or more years at an annual average in excess of the $2.5-million Piniella was to make in Seattle. The Rays plan to make a formal offer this week.

"I think it was very positive," Nero said. "I think we left the meeting today knowing there is common ground to come together on a deal if everyone continues to feel like we felt this morning."

Piniella left after the meeting for Phoenix, where he will speak today at a memorial service for Gary Mack, the former Seattle team psychologist who was a close friend.

Talks with the Rays will resume Monday or Tuesday after Piniella's return, but Nero is hoping the Mets also will have permission to negotiate by then.

"When you're making a major decision, you don't want to be in a position to only have one choice. I don't think anyone would only want one choice," Nero said.

"From the very beginning, Lou's been very consistent. All he wanted was the opportunity to talk to the Mets and Tampa Bay to be closer to home. The Mets are in the same time zone, they have spring training in Florida. He's very comfortable in New York. Of course, he's very comfortable here. There's a lot of advantages to the Tampa Bay situation and a lot of advantages to the New York situation.

"But I think we'll be disappointed if the Mets don't get the opportunity."

Whether they do or not will be the result of some high-stakes negotiation and high-profile brinksmanship between the Mets and Mariners. While the Rays agreed Friday to an undisclosed compensation package -- one that, if you make the connection between a player the Mariners wanted and one the Rays were willing to trade, may include All-Star outfielder Randy Winn -- the Mets on Saturday still were in ongoing talks.

"We're still at point A," Mets spokesman Jay Horwitz said.

The Mets reportedly have given the Mariners their choice of two minor-leaguers but did not include any of their top four prospects. The Mariners may be waiting for the Mets to give up more, the Mets may be waiting for the Mariners to drop their demand and Piniella, if you believe the New York papers, is waiting for something to happen to bring the sides together. He will get the chance to speak to Mariners officials directly, and vent any frustration he reportedly might have, when they assemble today in Arizona.

Overall, Rays officials considered the session a good one: positive, constructive, professional.

"For the preliminary meeting we wanted to have, it went very well," general manager Chuck LaMar said.

"We talked Devil Rays baseball, why we thought he was the right guy for the job, we talked about personnel. Obviously he's had the chance to see some of our young players and knows about some of our young players. We talked about what I thought the next several years will be like personnel-wise. He asked questions about baseball operations and the minor leagues. It was a good baseball conversation."

Having spent most of last week negotiating just for the right to talk to Piniella, LaMar was eager for the 8 a.m. session over doughnuts. "After working all week around the clock, it was nice to say, "Hi, how the heck are you?' " LaMar said.

MLB senior vice president Sandy Alderson said the commissioner's office is monitoring the situation and wants to "make sure it is resolved appropriately" but is not directly involved. Alderson said teams can get exemptions to the ban on making major announcements during the Series but "there have been no indications there will be this year."

Ultimately, the decision will be up to Piniella. The Rays have geography on their side, the potential benefit of Piniella's friendship with team investors Chris Sullivan and Bob Basham and hometown sentiment that Piniella is said to have found amazing and humbling.

"I don't think there was anything in that meeting that led us to believe that we can't get together," Nero said. "We have to invest a lot more time in this. It's a very, very big decision for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and a very big decision for Lou. I don't think this will be a quick process. But we accomplished a lot, we left on a very positive note, and we'll continue to meet. I think there will be a sense of urgency when Lou returns."

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