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Can Piniella build bridge to Tampa fans?

Latins love him, but how Rays sell themselves and perform may be bigger lures.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002

TAMPA -- He brings credibility to as bad a team as the major leagues have seen in two decades. He brings the respect a manager earns by winning a World Series, winning as many games in a season as any manager before him.

And he brings a passion nurtured by his Latin roots in baseball-rich soil. Like Al Lopez, Tony La Russa and so many other familiar local faces, Lou Piniella has become something of an icon to the game's fervent followers in the Hispanic neighborhoods of West Tampa, Ybor City and elsewhere.

But will his passion bring them across the bridges and into Tropicana Field to watch the Devil Rays?

Or will they continue to watch from afar, saving their money until the Rays rise to respectability?

And do Tampa's Latin fans owe it to Piniella to buy tickets because he is one of their own?

"I don't think you can say it's a responsibility, but we have a very strong Latin community here in Tampa and it's very responsive," said George Steinbrenner, for 30 years principal owner of the Yankees, who train in Tampa. "I would think they would support Lou. I would hope they would because I think Lou is a brilliant manager and he's a warrior.

"But who can tell? You can't say they'll drive all that way over to St. Pete," said Steinbrenner, a Tampa resident taking a swipe at the half-hour drive from Ybor City to the Trop.

That's about as long as it takes Yankees fans to drive from Newark, N.J., or Greenwich, Conn., to the Bronx. (Okay, usually they're rewarded with a win; losing makes only the ride home seem longer.)

* * *

Dominoes, wisecracks and moans of woe and injustice fly across a tabletop once green but long since worn to the wood in a back room at the Vincent and Tampa Cigar Co. on N Howard Avenue in West Tampa.

"Saying you're not going to go because they're on the other side of the bay, that's a poor excuse," said Sal Valdes, 65, a steamship agent. "It's not that far. But the team's been lousy for years. After a while you just can't take it anymore."

Charlie Miranda, dominoes in hand, left molars clamped on a fat cigar, remembers being in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium for the first two games of the 1990 World Series, when Piniella's Reds swept La Russa's Oakland Athletics.

"We had a whole row of people from Tampa," said the Tampa city councilman and mayoral candidate. "If they went to Cincinnati to see a couple of games, they can go 20 miles to see a lot of games."

"The thing is," said Mario Garrido, 43, production manager for the Hav-A-Tampa Cigar Co., "you want to be able to draw people into the ballpark and a name is what's going to draw them. And ... "

Valdes interrupted him. "But they're not going to go back if they keep on losing the way they're doing."

John Browne, Rays vice president of sales and marketing, said Piniella will be the focal point of the 2003 ticket campaign and Hillsborough County will get more attention than in previous seasons.

* * *

Miranda said the team has been marketed as what it wants to be, not what it is, "and if you don't meet that high expectation, then it's all downhill. Like they did when they had (Jose) Canseco and (Fred) McGriff and (Vinny) Castilla and (Greg) Vaughn." The slogan: Hit Show.

"They had all these power guys and that year they had no power except for Canseco, and then he got hurt," Miranda said. "If you advertise yourself as what you are, the public is going to come. They're going to want to see for themselves what you're going to be. I think they're going to do it right, like, 'Here, we've got a manager and that's what we are.' "

Browne said Piniella has had an impact on ticket sales "and as we continue to get more and more competitive on the field, I think that bridge will get shorter and shorter."

Steinbrenner said he'll occasionally motor to St. Petersburg. "I bought four season seats; I've never had them before," he said, adding with a laugh, "and didn't (Rays owner) Vince Naimoli show up with a bill. I'm already paying him money through revenue sharing, but I like Vince and I'll take my seats and support Lou."

Count on Al Lopez to be a Piniella fan from afar. The Ybor City native was on the minor-league Tampa Smokers in 1925-26, spent 19 seasons as a major-league catcher and was a hero among Tampa's Latin fans when in 1951 he became manager of the Cleveland Indians and, later, the Chicago White Sox. The Hall of Famer is 94 and doesn't get around as much as he used to.

"There's no question Lou's going to have a lot of people (from Tampa's west side) buying tickets, even season tickets," said Lopez, adding that he thought Piniella could manage to squeeze an extra 15 wins, maybe more, out of a team that never has won more than 69 games in a season under former managers Larry Rothschild and Hal McRae.

* * *

Miranda, 62, is too young to remember the early Smokers, one of four Florida State League teams from the early 1920s until it folded in the late '30s. A second edition competed in the Florida International League in the mid 1940s.

The Smokers' biggest rival was not the St. Petersburg Saints but the Havana Sugar Kings. Twice the teams played for the championship, Tampa winning in 1946, Havana in '47. The Smokers folded again in 1953 and have been reborn in semipro baseball and fast-pitch softball leagues.

"As far as the Latin community is concerned, we've always had the type of baseball here with a lot happening every game, a lot of fire," Garrido said. "Piniella brings that. Devil Rays games are the most boring games you could possibly watch; there's nothing going on. With him there's going to be some kind of spark. I don't think it's so much Lou being Latin. Piniella loves to win, he's proven he can win, and he's the worst loser in the world."

Mike Alvarez, 24, manager of the Vincent and Tampa Cigar Co., has been a Rays fan since Day 1, but not enough to get him to more than about half a dozen games in five years.

"Before they came here, I didn't like any baseball teams," he said. "I've been to a few games and now that (Piniella's) here I'm sure it's going to be a lot more exciting. A lot of my friends are fans, too, and we'll probably go to more games next year. Me, maybe 10, 20. ... People from here don't have to go, but it'd be nice if they showed up to see a guy from West Tampa and support him."

* * *

Not everyone is a Piniella fan. "I don't pay to see no manager," said Manuel Fernandez, 20, standing with friends outside El Gallo de Oro, a restaurant on N Armenia Avenue. He is a Yankees fan; his cap says so. "They're fun," he said. "They win."

He has been to one Rays game, a couple years ago. They played the Yankees. "We won," he said. He said the Rays were pretty ugly that day, and he hasn't changed his opinion of them. "They play like (expletive)."

Sergio Alvarez was hanging around one of the card tables where rummy was being played and complaints aired at the Centro Asturiano Club on N Nebraska Avenue in Ybor City. He is retired -- from what, he wouldn't say -- and fudged about his age, but he is old enough to say, "Listen, Sonny ... " and poke a finger into the chest of a 60-year-old guest.

"Piniella's a hot dog," Alvarez growled. "He likes to show off. I don't like hot dogs, throwing bases and all. You know who he reminds me of? Leo Durocher. He's showing off, and he's not that damned good."

Excluding the indifference of a few card-playing companions who don't care that much about baseball, Alvarez is in the minority. But it is one thing being a Piniella fan and another to expect Tampa residents to pay to see him on the Rays bench (or throwing bases and kicking dirt).

Willie Garcia, 71, a lifelong West Tampa resident, was polishing off a Cuban sandwich. "I don't think anybody has an obligation to support any particular sports franchise," he said. "It stands or falls on what it produces, and the Rays haven't been producing. ...

"Look at Miami, all those Cubans they have down there. Nobody's a bigger baseball fan than a Cuban. And look what happened to their attendance," Garcia said. It has declined from 3,064,847 in 1993, the inaugural season, to 813,072 this year (compared with the Rays' 1,065,742).

Back at the Vincent and Tampa Cigar Co., Miranda said people "will go see the Devil Rays if they see something developing. It doesn't have to be 90 wins. If they do a credible job of showing improvement, they'll have 10,000-15,000 more.

"The only negative to this is when I heard (Rays general manager Chuck) LaMar say, 'We'll be improved in 2004 when we get more money.' That's not the right answer. The right answer is, 'We're going to start playing better tomorrow.' You can't do anything about yesterday, but when you tell the public, 'I'm not going to do anything this year,' that's a mistake in attitude. ...

"Lou Piniella manages baseball like we play dominoes," Miranda said. "We don't sit down here to lose. Lou doesn't look at the opposition and say, 'Gee, maybe we can't beat 'em.' It's, 'You're going to go out there now and try your damndest to win.' "

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