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Naimoli deserves a little credit

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Opening the season with a 10-game homestand after six weeks of spring training in the back yard might not seem like the best scenario, but it worked out to be a pretty good deal for the Devil Rays.

Managing general partner Vince Naimoli, who takes plenty of abuse (and that's just on these pages), deserves credit for orchestrating what amounted to a three-way trade that will bring the high-appeal Braves in for a June weekend series rather than the lackluster Marlins.

Naimoli's basic pitch was that the rearranged schedule, which also involved the Red Sox, would be, literally, in the best interests of baseball.

The Marlins are the Rays' designated natural rival but have never been a draw here. For 14 home games against the Fightin' Fish, the Rays have averaged fewer than 20,000 fans -- fewer than 14,000 a game the past two seasons. For six home games against the Braves (three in 1998, three in 2000), they averaged more than 37,000.

Meanwhile, the Braves were paired nostalgically with the Red Sox, who pack Fenway Park on a nightly basis.

Naimoli's point to baseball officials was that the Red Sox would sell out no matter who they were playing, while the Rays (who usually get no help from the schedulemaker; of all the appealing NL Central opponents to bring in this year, they got Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) would notice a significant increase if they had the Braves in.

Bottom line: about 75,000 people who otherwise wouldn't will go to games.

"I showed them the differential in attendance for Major League Baseball -- not for us but for baseball," Naimoli said. "And that was the selling point."

So, while the Rays host the Braves June 27-29, the Red Sox will be entertaining the Marlins.

And that's where opening day fits in.

The original schedule had the Rays and Red Sox opening the season in Boston, where the high temperature for Monday is forecast to be 38 degrees and snow is possible on Tuesday. The Red Sox, concerned months ago about the weather, asked the Rays about a swap, and Naimoli, appreciative of the other trade, was willing to make it happen.

"It worked out for everybody," Naimoli said.

EVERS READY: In a different scenario, he would be the one preparing the team for Monday's opener. But Lou Piniella took the Rays job, and Bill Evers heads to Durham for his sixth season managing the Triple-A Bulls and his 28th straight in the minor leagues.

Coming off last season's International League championship, Evers could have almost an entirely new lineup. That doesn't make his job any easier, or any different. He still has to convince players that their stats aren't all that matters, prepare them to help the big-league team, and, of course, win.

"As far as being disappointed about not getting the big-league job, that's baseball," Evers said. "You have to be professional about it and continue to do what you need to do to help the big-league club. I don't dwell on it."

HOO-RAYS: The orange-dipped paint brush that showed up in the mail was to tease the Tropicana Field upgrades that will be unveiled today, highlighted by the addition of Devil Rays/Tropicana-themed murals along the outfield fences, dugout tops, stadium facades and lower catwalks. ... The commissioner's office said the $9.25-million owed released Greg Vaughn was the most eaten by a team until the Tigers let go of Damion Easley, who is owed $14.3-million. ... Thursday's no-hitter against Philadelphia was the Rays' first in exhibition or regular-season play, and the first in major-league spring play since Boston did it to Toronto March 14, 2000. ... The starters vs. relievers hitting contest ended in a 6-6 tie Tuesday, though Jorge Sosa hit a home run (off coach Tom Foley). Aubrey Huff's appraisal of the offensive "effort": "Tired, real tired."

BIG BLUE: The Diamondbacks and Giants are the trendy picks, but there are some who think the Dodgers are the best team in the NL West. That includes Dodgers outfielder Brian Jordan. "My expectations are we'd better be playing in October," Jordan said. "We're that good. If we can all stay healthy, I think we should win our division."

HOW DO YOU REALLY FEEL: Florida's Brad Penny did not agree with the decision of MLB president Bob DuPuy and discipline czar Bob Watson to uphold his five-game suspension while reducing Vladimir Guerrero's from three games to two for their roles in a March 10 brawl. "Those people are stupid," Penny said. "It's ridiculous."

KIDDIE CORPS: The Royals starters enter the season with a combined 21 big-league victories. And they're not the least experienced rotation -- the Tigers open with a combined 18 victories.

Only one team in the past 60 years opened the season with fewer -- the 1998 Marlins, who had a rotation of Livan Hernandez, Felix Heredia, Eric Ludwick, Brian Meadows and Rafael Medina. They had a combined 16 wins.

The Rays, with Jim Parque and Steve Parris aboard, have 108.

DON'T BOTHER: Giants slugger Barry Bonds hit four of his 10 spring homers against the Brewers. So, when the teams play for real next weekend, will Bonds even see a strike? "He better not," Milwaukee manager Ned Yost said.

A-PLUS: With a sour taste from last season's early exit and the no-nonsense approach of new manager Ken Macha, the A's break camp with a focus and a mission.

"What happened last year definitely kept us hungry," third baseman Eric Chavez said. "It's been frustrating, to say the least. Last year was pretty tough to swallow. The excitement of being young and good is over. We know what kind of team we are and what we can do, and the (promotion) of Macha has put us in overdrive."

MISCELLANY: After five years as a part-time spring instructor with the Cubs, Ryne Sandberg says he would "absolutely consider" a full-time coaching position. ... One reason the Astros released Shane Reynolds -- his fastball reportedly was down to 82 mph. Another? Nearly $6-million in potential incentive bonuses. ... Ex-Ray Chris Gomez won the utility infield job with Minnesota. ... Jesse Orosco, the amazing 46-year-old, starts his 24th season with the Padres. He is more than twice as old as two of their starters. ... Four-year-old Darren Baker is not allowed to be a bat boy, but he may sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame during a Cubs game this season. ... Josh Beckett, the player taken after the Rays' Josh Hamilton in the 1999 draft, will be the Marlins' opening-day starter. ... The Expos have to pay Hernandez only the $300,000 minimum, with the Giants picking up the rest. But if he pitches 217 innings, his $6-million option kicks in.

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

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