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Who's the man?: Piniella?

Wins are the goal, but Lou Piniella's short-term value might be ending the Rays' days as a national laughingstock.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


photo
Hiring Piniella is a "major credibility coup" for the Rays, an agent says.
ST. PETERSBURG -- By hiring Lou Piniella, the Devil Rays got one of the most successful managers in the game, an established leader, wily strategist, master motivator and proven winner.

But they also are getting much more: a new face for the franchise, a familiar and respected face that will boost their likability, their marketability and -- perhaps most importantly given a reputation, fully deserved or not, as among the worst in baseball -- their credibility.

The ultimate payoff for the bold signing -- in which the Rays stunned the baseball world by showing they were willing to spend the money ($13-million over four years, plus incentives) and make the commitment to lure someone of Piniella's stature -- will be in the win-loss column, and it likely will take a while.

But there are residual and less tangible benefits they may start to realize much sooner.

Players, specifically free-agent players who can make a difference on a team trying to become competitive, likely are going to find the Rays a more attractive destination.

"I think it's a major credibility coup for the franchise," said Scott Boras, the premier player agent in the game. "I think players will definitely think differently about what direction the ownership is willing to take."

Agent Alan Nero, who negotiated Piniella's contract, said he is looking forward to being on the other side of the table from the Rays as he seeks to place some veteran players over the coming seasons.

Though Nero has had several clients with the team, such as Wade Boggs, Dave Martinez and John Flaherty, he said that things will be different now, that Piniella's winning background and communication skills will make Tampa Bay an even more attractive option for certain veterans.

"They'll want to play for Lou, and they'll realize they're going to be the supporting cast in an organization committed to winning," Nero said. "You won't have the same synergy you had before. I think it's going to work, I really do. We just have to be patient."

To fully capitalize on having Piniella in the dugout, and, just as importantly, to keep him happy there, Boras said it is important the Rays realize they are going to have to keep spending money.

"There's a great risk for the owners, because if they don't follow through with investing in the team and bringing players in there for Piniella, I think he's going to be greatly dissatisfied," Boras said.

"That billboard has to have Lou with a smile on his face. It really puts an onus on ownership to begin the process of making the club a serious contender, and they certainly have some good young players to start with in (Rocco) Baldelli and Carl (Crawford). But it's pitching, pitching, pitching."

The hiring of Piniella also will raise the national profile of the team.

According to one sports marketing expert, Bob Williams, CEO of Illinois-based Burns Sports & Celebrities, the pre-Piniella Rays "are not on the radar screen."

As unusual as it is for a team's biggest marquee name to be its manager, Williams said, "It's a step in the right direction."

The hiring also could be a step, or several, toward profitability.

Brandon Steiner of New York-based Steiner Sports Marketing said he would expect an increase in season-ticket and suite sales, sponsorships and overall corporate involvement, enough to cover Piniella's salary and then some.

"You'll see sales go up because people can't wait for the team to get red-hot," Steiner said. "There will be a better feeling about the team. We saw it here in the early 1990s with the Knicks when (coach Pat) Riley came on. What a good coach or manager does is convince people that night in and night out they're in for a competitive, entertaining game as opposed to how it was, that they were probably going to lose. People will have a hard time believing that a team managed by Lou Piniella is going to have a losing record three years from now.

"It creates confidence. You probably saw that with your football team (after the hiring of Jon Gruden). You can't discount the importance of customer confidence, including in sports, when you get good management involved."

Having Piniella in the dugout undoubtedly will make the Rays more popular with the national media, which usually only mentions them in ridicule.

It won't, however, necessarily make them must-see TV, at least not until the results are there.

"I think for the folks in Tampa, it gives the team instant credibility," Fox Sports president Ed Goren said. "He's so charismatic and he's been a winner everywhere he's gone. But you still need the horses, and that doesn't happen instantly. It's still about winning and losing. A lot of our scheduling process is based on what happens the year before. There's still a show-me attitude on the part of fans."


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