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Lou has hope. Well, that's one

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Either he knows something we do not, or we know something he will learn.

Lou Piniella sits in the front of the room, his raspy voice falling upon the ears of those who doubt every word. The Rev. Lou is at work now, his confidence filling the room, and he invites you to believe along with him.

The Rays are going to win more than ever, Lou Piniella is saying. And no one says amen.

They are going to reach .500 quicker than you would think, he says. And no one yells hallelujah.

Within three years, the Rays will be able to compete with everyone in the American League East. And the choir remains silent.

It is tough duty, preaching a sermon no one believes. We are doubters. All of us. We have been hardened by what we have seen, by what Piniella will see. And so we want to warn Lou, to help him brace for the onslaught. We have witnessed the size of the beast in front of Piniella and, frankly, the guy's going to need reinforcements.

Yet, Piniella bravely marches on. Either he is the first person to believe, or he is the last to understand. Either he is wrong about this team, or the rest of us are.

For once, don't you wish it were us?

Regardless, bully for Lou. As the team prepares for its sixth spring training, isn't it grand that someone believes? Don't you find some hope in the unflagging, unfathomable optimism of Piniella?

"It's up to me as a manager to be optimistic," Piniella said. "How do I sell the fans, the players, if I don't believe? If I have doubts, if I have a premonition, why should the players believe?

"I'm an optimistic person. I go to the ballpark every day believing we're going to win. That's just the way I am."

If there is one guy you want to believe in this season, and in seasons beyond, it is Piniella. More than anything else, he's the thing Tampa Bay fans can believe in.

This is what Piniella brings to the Rays. His voice is the most credible part of the franchise. Others in the organization have talked about a bright future for years. But when Lou says it, it sounds new, fresh.

He is new.

Furthermore, he is Lou.

Oh, you can talk for hours about the reasons Piniella doesn't stand a chance. The pitching has been stripped for parts. Most of the lineup is young enough to compete for a junior college championship. The payroll is smaller than George Steinbrenner's petty cash drawer.

Put it this way. When the Rays signed Piniella, they thought they landed the best manager in baseball. Now, they're intent on making him prove it.

"We've got a good young group assembled," Piniella said. "I expect this team to play very well. Am I going to tell you we're going to win the World Series? No. Am I going to tell you we're going to win our good fair share of games? Yes."

Last season, the Rays' fair share of victories turned up at 55. Of course it did. With this franchise, nothing speeds along.

This year?

For the Rays to win a record number, 70, they would have win an additional 15 games. Look closely at the roster. Do you see an extra 15 victories hidden there?

"I don't like to talk about (projections)," Piniella said. "I don't want to put a ceiling on it. If we can win more games than we've ever won, that would be a nice move forward. Can we do better than that? Yes, we can. But I might be shooting too low."

Too low? If Piniella wins 63, and avoids another 100-loss season, it will be a fine job. If he wins 70, he should be manager of the year. If he flirts with .500, as he thinks is possible, then he should retire from baseball and join a magic show.

In baseball, you need two things to win: pitching and money. The Rays don't have either. Yes, the defense is better. When you think about the screaming line drives that will come toward infielders, they'd better be.

Bless the eyes of Piniella, then. Oh, if we could all see through them.

We see trouble. He sees a challenge.

We see youth. He sees potential.

We see empty seats. He sees a budding area waiting for a winner.

Mind you, Piniella is not, by nature, a patient man. In the world of water coolers, this guy is Jan Stenerud. There is a school of thought, by those who have covered him, that the losing will turn Piniella into a basket case by the All-Star Game.

Piniella hears the talk, and he just smiles. He's ready for this, he says.

"If I don't have patience by now," he said, "when am I going to get it?"

The thing is, you should love that Piniella believes. You should love that he thinks the young players will develop this year, and the payroll will grow next year, and the free agents will come, and the seats will fill, and before long this will be a fine, healthy franchise.

What would you prefer? For a manager to sound like the bugler for the Light Brigade? For him to talk of doom and gloom and shortcomings? For him to remind you that next year's opening day is only 365 days away?

Nope. Bless Piniella for his optimism. Maybe it will spread to the kids in the clubhouse. Maybe it will spread throughout the front office.

Who knows? Either Lou will be the life of this franchise, or it will be the death of him.

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