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Curtain closes on Rays' Hit Show

Tampa Bay releases Greg Vaughn, the last member of the vaunted quartet, and eats the $9.25-million owed to him.

By TOM JONES
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Each day this spring, he dragged himself into the batter's box amid the boos and ridicule of the fans who once cheered him. As his tape-measure homers, shots to the gap and, most of all, his odds for winning disappeared, so did his smile and joy for the game.

When slugger Greg Vaughn signed with the Devil Rays three years ago, it appeared to be a perfect match. Since then, Vaughn's game and the Rays' philosophy have changed. The relationship, the hot-button issue of the spring for the Rays, ended Saturday when the Rays took another stride toward the future by releasing the 37-year-old outfielder/designated hitter.

After the ups and mostly downs of the past three years, particularly the past month, Vaughn sounded like a man put out of his misery Saturday.

"You just need a fresh start and a new beginning sometimes," Vaughn said. "The guy upstairs has a plan sometimes, and he probably said, 'Enough is enough. It's time to go.' And that's what happened."

Actually, the guys upstairs for the Rays -- general manager Chuck LaMar and manager Lou Piniella, both of whom called Vaughn "classy" and wished him the best -- decided it was time for Vaughn, hitting just .217 this spring, to go.

Willing to eat the final year of a contact that pays him $9.25-million this season, the Rays added Vaughn to the pile of former big names such as Kevin Stocker, Gerald Williams and Vinny Castilla released because it didn't work out.

"I think it was just time," LaMar said. "The direction of the club is youth. The direction of the club is building for the future. You have to remember when Greg Vaughn signed that contract, we were heading in a different direction. We were headed toward a competitive, veteran-type of team until the young kids are ready.

"So he came here under one direction, and all of a sudden, he ended up being a veteran with everybody else -- young players -- heading in another direction."

Vaughn arrived in 2000 and was plugged into the middle of a lineup -- billed as the Hit Show -- that included veterans Castilla, Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco. He hit 28 home runs and drove in 74 runs in what he called his most enjoyable season with the Rays. He followed that by hitting 24 homers with 82 RBIs in 2001.

But a shoulder injury helped ruin last season, when he hit .163 with eight homers and 29 RBIs in 69 games. Along the way, the Rays scrapped their plan to win now and started building with youth.

"It's the nature of the game and part of the business," Vaughn said. "Plans change. People go in different directions. And I just happened to be caught in the middle of it. But it's no one's fault. I'm not going to sit here and blame anyone. That's just the nature of the game. It's a relief right now. I feel like a big building has just been taken off my shoulders."

Vaughn, who said there was a certain "negativity" associated with the Rays franchise, admitted he no longer enjoyed playing for a team that didn't win.

"It gets to be a burden sometimes," Vaughn said. "The direction (here) changed, and I don't care who you are. It's like part of your soul -- part of my soul -- was cut out because I'm not used to losing. And it was a day-in-and-day-out thing.

"Everybody said, 'Why are you quiet? Where's the laughter? Where's the smile?' I feel like somebody cut it out because I took it personally. A few of the guys said, 'Man, now you get to go out and have fun again."'

He said he harbors no anger toward the fans who turned on him during the past year but admitted his four-year, $34-million contract might have been an albatross.

Meanwhile, LaMar said he has no regrets about signing or releasing Vaughn even though the Rays remain on the hook for his salary. Vaughn likely will clear waivers Tuesday. Then another team can pick him up while the Rays pick up the tab.

"I was honored to sign him to the contract," LaMar said. "I was honored at that time to bring him in to be a Devil Ray. Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back, I'd do the same thing again. He was a proven, outstanding winner, competitor and power hitter. It just didn't work out here."

LaMar said every possible scenario, including keeping Vaughn for part or all of the season, was considered.

"We just felt that after weighing all the options that we had and the direction this club is going in," LaMar said, "this was the right thing to do.

Vaughn was one of several moves the Rays made Saturday. They released veteran relievers Bob Wells and John Frascatore. They also assigned pitchers Delvin James and Jason Standridge and infielders Jared Sandberg and Antonio Perez to Triple-A Durham.

Those moves, though, were aftershocks to the quake of the day.

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