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Piniella won't wait for the Mets

The Rays' offer is impressive enough that the manager's agent says he'll no longer insist on talking with New York.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 23, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Devil Rays made their offer to Lou Piniella on Tuesday and it went over very well.

Well enough that agent Alan Nero said for the first time they no longer insist on wanting to talk to the Mets before making a decision; well enough that the Mets, according to one report, have already turned their attention to Oakland's Art Howe; well enough that even some of the skeptical New York media are reporting today it looks as if Piniella is headed home to Tampa Bay.

The Rays made what was believed to be an impressive pitch: a four-year contract that would pay the 59-year-old Piniella in excess of $13-million.

Nero described the offer, which would be the second-largest in history for a manager, as "very reasonable." He went a little further with the New York Daily News, saying "a deal with the Devil Rays is about 95 percent done."

Neither Nero nor Piniella would discuss the specifics but both said the negotiations will continue, with a counter-proposal coming, perhaps as soon as today. The Rays, because of a ban implemented by Major League Baseball, were not allowed to say anything.

"The talks with Tampa have been positive and proceeding, and we'll see what happens there," Piniella told the Seattle Times on Tuesday. "We've been talking a lot about the ballclub and much less about compensation."

The most significant official development Tuesday, an apparent reflection of the quality of the Tampa Bay offer, is that Nero backed off what had been a consistent position that no matter what the Rays had to say, they wanted to talk to the Mets before they made a decision. Now he said they don't have to.

"Lou from the get-go said he wanted to talk to them, but that was in absence of an offer from Tampa Bay," Nero said. "Now we have an offer and we'll continue to work with Tampa in good faith. If the Mets get in, we'll talk to them. If not ... "

The Rays earned the right to negotiate with Piniella by agreeing with Seattle on what the compensation would be if they hire him, a package that is believed to include All-Star outfielder Randy Winn. The Mets and Mariners have not come to agreement and don't appear to be making any progress, although -- feeding the conspiracy theorists in the New York media -- the Mets will have a few more days to get involved.

That's because even if Piniella and the Rays reach agreement in the next few days, the Rays won't be allowed by the commissioner's office to make the announcement until after the end of the World Series.

However, the Daily News reported that the Mets had already turned their attention to Plan B and started talks with Howe, who is also represented by Nero. Under the News' scenario, bench coach Ken Macha (who is also represented by Nero) would take over in Oakland.

Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli and general manager Chuck LaMar met with Piniella for the first time Saturday and presented the offer in a noon meeting Tuesday.

"All I can tell you is that we had a very good meeting and they gave us the proposal with no pressure and no stress to make a rash decision," Nero said.

"I think it was a very reasonable offer. Tampa Bay worked very hard to get this done. There's a lot of common ground. We'll continue to work toward coming to an agreement."

Nero said he would do some research and make a counter-proposal in the next couple days. "Vince and Chuck have been extremely gracious and there really is no deadline," Nero said.

Commissioner Bud Selig -- obviously annoyed at how much attention the Piniella story has been getting, particularly in New York -- made that clear Tuesday by prohibiting the teams from even commenting on the situation, much less making an announcement.

The Rays were forced to cancel a scheduled media session at Tropicana Field where LaMar was going to discuss the day's events.

"We have a memorandum that's now 4-5 years old, maybe even older, that said during the World Series the focus has got to be on the World Series," Selig said Tuesday before Game 3.

"It's our greatest event, and as I said to some clubs today, in many cases you spend all your life trying to get your team to the World Series and the focus ought to be on the World Series, and that's where it's going to be. ... If I could use stronger language here I would; that's the way it's going to be."

Until Tuesday, the ban was believed to cover only "announcements" and not comments, but MLB senior vice president Sandy Alderson said that was "a very narrow reading and not a correct reading."

The teams still are allowed to continue negotiations.

"They can't do anything publicly," Selig said. "I can't stop negotiating, nor do I want to. I'm trying to be very logical here, very rational, very reasonable. The focus should be on the World Series."

There have been some reports suggesting Selig would get involved in the Piniella situation, perhaps to resolve the differences between the Mets and the Mariners. He apparently has not so far and refused to say Tuesday if he would.

-- Staff writer Kevin Kelly contributed to this report.

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