Victories answer every Rays question
For every hurdle, new manager Lou Piniella says winning will clear them.
By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003
ST. PETERSBURG -- There are a few things Lou Piniella is going to have to get used to this spring: the drive from his Tampa home or Redington Beach house to Devil Rays training camp; the glare of the local media spotlight; the afterglow of the Bucs' Super Bowl victory and the parallel universe analogies with Jon Gruden; the number of players in camp (a major-league-high 72 invited) and a stunning amount of questions that have to be resolved.
And then there's this: the harsh reality of a man known for winning everywhere he has been taking over a team that hasn't known anything but losing.
In 16 seasons, Piniella never has managed a team that has lost more than 88 games; the Rays never have lost fewer than 92. He hasn't finished worse than third since 1993; the Rays never have been anything but last. He has had a winning record in his first season at each previous stop; the Rays never have been within a dozen games of .500.
"We're not going to win a division this year," Piniella said. "We're not going to win a World Series. This is the first time probably in seven or eight years that for me those expectations are less.
"I never thought I'd say, "Boy, if we win 75 games we're doing well,' you know? But I have to be realistic, too. I'll know come the middle or end of spring training exactly what we have or don't have, but it would be the wrong thing for me to put out too-high expectations that can't be met. We've got to put something, put a carrot out there that can be met, that people can feel good and proud about."
Any progress this season, especially after further reduction of a major-league low payroll that produced 55 wins last season, will be impressive. But, as if the job isn't hard enough, it won't come anywhere near the Bucs success.
Since the Super Bowl, there has been a line of thinking going around that goes something like this: since Gruden came home and led the once-downtrodden Bucs to the world championship in his first season, shouldn't Piniella be able to do the same with the Rays?
Last Sunday, they met face to face for the first time. Piniella looked up from brunch at the Avila Golf and Country Club and saw Gruden, went over to introduce himself and offer congratulations. He even made a pitch for Gruden to come out and address the team during spring training.
"Look, he did a tremendous job there," Piniella said. "I told him what a great job he did. His team was much further along the way than this one, you know? Their team was ready to win, they needed somebody to get it over the hump.
"This team here, you've got to walk before you run, and you've got to run before you sprint. So right now, we're going to learn to run this year."
The first steps come with Friday's opening of spring training, and Piniella has plenty to be concerned with. The pitching staff has been gutted, with Joe Kennedy the only sure thing, and there are questions about the composition of the roster (especially if the front office wants to keep Rule 5 draftee Hector Luna).
Piniella will have to decide everything from whether rookie Rocco Baldelli is ready to play every day in centerfield to whether veteran Greg Vaughn is done. He wants versatility and athleticism from a team that hasn't had much of either, and has to figure out how to put his best defensive team on the field without further throttling the offense.
At age 59, in his 41st year in the game, he is genuinely excited and eager to get started, infinitely confident he and his coaches can teach the young team how to win.
"We're going to work hard and we're going to have some fun," Piniella said.
"I'm a fun guy to play for. Believe me, I am. Talk to the teams I managed. We make it fun. I like the Outback slogan: no rules, just right. That's basically the way I like it. The only thing is we add one thing to the equation: We're demanding about doing things right on the field, playing hard and winning baseball games."
As good of a feel-good story Piniella's hiring has been -- the native son coming home to rescue the local team -- there is the potential for bad feelings, and Piniella knows that, too. The same people slapping him on the back at Malio's could be talking behind his back if the team is headed toward 100 losses again.
"I don't call it a burden, but I have more of a responsibility," Piniella said. "I take my job very seriously, whether it be here or wherever. I recognize that there's pressure and there's expectations, but at the same time I've found there's so much a manager can do. As long as I don't shortchange anybody -- and that I won't do -- I'm prepared and I prepare the baseball team, the players have to get it done on the field invariably. ...
"But I'll tell you this: I want to see this club do well for a lot more reasons than just because I'm managing the team. I'd like to see this thing prosper here and do well here and stay here and become one of the more elite organizations in baseball.
"And you know what? After five years there's probably a lot of people that say, "Gosh, how is that going to be possible?' It can be done. It can be done. It really can. And it starts with winning."
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