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With Rays, Piniella will need patience above all

By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2002

Lou Piniella is back home, packing a lifetime of accomplishment, with the heart of a champion, his gut churning still with competitive passion. But the old Tampa fireball will be managing Devil Rays all but sentenced to at least one more summer in American League East dungeon.

I mean, knead the dough . . .

What if you bossed a business with 25 key employees, with two who are nonsensically overpaid but sadly underachieving, creating a whopper challenge of accelerating talents among the 23 budget guys, many of them dangerously young?

Patience, Sweet Lou.

Paul Wilson, Tanyon Sturtze and Esteban Yan aren't exactly Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera but the Rays couldn't afford to keep even the three mediocre but experienced pitchers because costs were too stiff.

Can't afford to compete.

Until they reach long-awaited hours of cleansing, sometime in October, when the Rays shed $16-million worth of Greg Vaughn-Ben Grieve shackles, the final sores (we trust) in general manager Chuck LaMar's excruciating run of big-pay flops, the best Piniella can do with a $25-million salary ceiling is optimum efforts and magnetic attitudes plus an accelerated learning curve among green-horn prospects.

Patience, Mr. P.

Before long, we'll see if Carl Crawford is ready to become a force, if Rocco Baldelli can generate heroic shine in the majors and if Josh Hamilton can stay healthy and complete an outfield of Rays phenoms.

Toby Hall has the stuff to excel as a catcher, but when does the consistency come? Will this be the summer of grand pitching maturity for Joe Kennedy and even an engaging, flame-throwing Dewon Brazelton? Will being paroled from New York put former Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez back into a comfortable mental state, allowing his defensive excellence to re-emerge?

So many questions.

So many what ifs.

Finishing last in the AL East, a sentence that seems inescapable, will become less nauseating if Lou's Rays become renowned for playing with the spunk of a young Pete Rose, while schooling themselves with historic Ted Williams-style values and looking into faces of Tropicana Field patrons with the proud, fiery, embraceable glee of a Sammy Sosa.

Too much to ask? I think not. In fact, it's all owed to Piniella's home territory, a place once figured as a natural for major-league baseball, and to locals who continue to believe the sport can still roar with Tampa Bay success.

Sweet Lou's neighbors, old and new, deserve to know the invigorating quivers of a Bucs-like transition from national laughingstocks to ebullient hometown hope. Lou and '03 associates must do whatever's needed to make '04, once Vaughn and Grieve join other wasted-dollar Rays ventures in some sort of Wilson Alvarez scrap heap, an escalating indication of sweet payback.

Patience, Louis.

SHORT CIRCUITS: Anybody check the Weather Channel this morning? Has there been a sudden, shocking late-December heat wave in Champaign, Ill.? I thought not. But, really, do the Bucs deserve being grouped with legit NFL contenders as long as they melt down at 40 degrees or lower, or can't stand up to January challenges in Philly or Green Bay? ... Oh, yes, track records do count, but imagine the media/public outrage the morning after if it'd been Bob Knight, not Mike Davis, who was an erupting Indiana basketball coach, charging on court as play continued in the final seconds against Kentucky, screaming insults at an official, getting one technical foul, then a second plus ejection, because the tantrum continued, perhaps costing his Hoosiers the game? ... Microphone quiz: Who is the only current network NFL sportscaster to graduate Phi Beta Kappa? It's okay for you to guess, Andy Rooney (answer coming).

COACH OF YEAR? I say Andy Reid.

LONG DRIVES: Sid Hartman, a Minneapolis sports writer since around the time that real vikings occupied his area, hears Red McCombs has a deal to sell Minnesota's NFL team to another Texan. But is it for relocating to Los Angeles? ... Are Evander Holyfield's chances getting stronger, with every boxing whack to his aging head, of growing old with battered mind and slurred speech? ... Rooney, 60-minute football sexist, should be aware that the lone Phi Beta Kappa pro football announcer is Melissa Stark of Monday Night Football, honors graduate of the University of Virginia and daughter of a onetime Baltimore Colts eye doctor.

Whatever happened to Alex Karras?

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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