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Players unhappy Yanks still No. 1

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- No matter what they do, the Devil Rays just can't keep up with the Yankees.

Financially, there is no comparison, with the Yankees heading toward a payroll in excess of $150-million, which will be more than five times what the Rays will spend in an attempt to compete in the same division.

On the field, there hasn't been much competition, with the Yankees holding a 51-22 edge in head-to-head play and finishing a cumulative 180 games ahead over the Rays' first five seasons.

Even in the Tampa Bay area, the Rays are clearly second choice. It has been obvious whenever the Yankees come to town during the regular season and was plain to see March 2 at Legends Field -- which regularly draws spring crowds in excess of 10,000; more than the Rays get for real games! -- and will be again today when the teams play before a pro-Yankee sellout at Progress Energy Park.

"Everyone in town, everybody here is pretty much a Yankees fan," Rays infielder Aubrey Huff said. "You're playing baseball in the Tampa Bay area, you live here and you're playing here every day, in your hometown, and you have more Yankees fans than Devil Rays fans."

Rays players only can hope the scene will shift once they have some success.

"We're trying to win the fans over and trying to get them to quit being fans of the Yankees and come over to the hometown team," pitcher Joe Kennedy said.

"All it takes is a little winning and that should change," Huff said. "We're young and, who knows, in a few years we might be the team on top of that division. It could change that quick. All you've got to do is win some games here and you'll see people go crazy like they did for the Bucs this year."

Still, that won't be easy, especially with a schedule that has them playing the Yankees 19 times a season.

BY GEORGE: George Steinbrenner's purchase of Rays season tickets could make for some interesting situations for Lou Piniella, who twice managed the Yankees for Steinbrenner.

"He might be watching one of our games if the Yankees play in the afternoon or something and if I don't make the right pitching change, I might get a phone call," Piniella said, joking.

SPRING FLING: The Rays haven't drawn well for spring training games and have trouble marketing to the same fans and sponsors they are trying to sell on the regular season.

But to assume when their St. Petersburg lease expires after the 2004 season they will relocate to Winter Haven, Port Charlotte or another option would not be right, managing general partner Vince Naimoli said.

"Absolutely not," he said. "I wouldn't start with that conclusion."

Naimoli said -- yes, he actually said this -- the financial issues are not the primary concern.

"I think the condition of the facilities is at the top of the list, the condition of the facilities and the convenience," he said. "If you prioritize things, those two are more important than location or anything else."

As it is, the Rays make a small profit from spring training. Even the most successful teams don't make much, Naimoli said, maybe a net $500,000.

CLOSE SHAVE: Posing for what turned out to be a two-page photo in the upcoming ESPN the Magazine baseball preview was a little different for Rays rookie Rocco Baldelli.

The magazine took Baldelli to a small barber shop in Tampa -- Fiesta Plaza -- and photographed him getting a shave from Carlos Cruz. At least the photo answered the question of whether the 21-year-old actually needs to shave. "Barely," he said. But as for the 1970s-looking wild-patterned shirt brought for him to wear? "Brutal," Baldelli said. "It was like a matador's shirt."

OUCH: Arizona's Carlos Baerga could be in the running for most weird spring injury. His story is he stopped at a gas station and was reaching across the car to hand money to his cousin when a gust of wind blew the car door shut on the middle finger of his left hand, causing a small cut and bruises that kept him out a few days.

THIS OLD MAN: Ken Griffey took some teasing for getting lost when he drove to a game in Fort Myers last week, but he spread the blame. "My navigator was asleep in the back seat," Griffey said. "It's Barry Larkin, but he's so old he has to get his sleep. We take him with us so we can get senior citizen's discounts on our McDonald's coffee."

MEDCIAL PROBLEM: Teams are still figuring out how to work around new government workplace regulations that by strict definition could prohibit, or limit, what trainers and managers can say about players' injuries. One option is to have players sign waivers allowing team officials to discuss their condition.

MISCELLANY: Marlins pitcher Carl Pavano discovered Bikram yoga this offseason, which he says entails going through different positions for 90 minutes in 104-degree heat with new age music in the background. And he likes it. ... Former infielder Walt Weiss, in camp with the Rockies as an instructor, has worked a corner for several Ultimate Fighting Championship cage matches and is training in submission fighting. ... Outfielder Roberto Kelly, who is 39 and hasn't played in the majors since 2000, is making a strong showing in the Padres camp. ... The Cubs are the latest team considering creating a TV network, perhaps in collaboration with the White Sox and NBA Bulls.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in the report.

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