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Rays soak in history

Hall of Fame exhibition ends in a 7-5 loss to the Phillies, but the visit to historic Cooperstown dazzles the young team.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 17, 2003

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Baseball's least-storied franchise made it to the Hall of Fame on Monday.

The Devil Rays lost the exhibition game to the Phillies 7-5, but the rest of their brief stay was a memorable experience.

They arrived late Sunday and stayed at the picturesque lakeside Otesaga Resort. They rode trolleys in a parade past the Hall and through quaint Cooperstown streets packed with thousands of fans. And they played before an enthusiastic sold-out crowd on a beautiful sun-splashed afternoon at historic Doubleday Field, on the same patch of land where the game is believed to have been first played by Abner Doubleday and some friends in 1839.

"Just to come here, especially for a young player, to visit the museum and play in this little ballpark and be part of baseball history in the sense that you're here, I think it's good for our team," manager Lou Piniella said. "I really do."

Because of the late arrival, players and coaches skipped the private Hall tour that started at midnight. Team officials who went got to see one of the newest exhibits, the ball from Rocco Baldelli's rookie-record 40th hit of April.

For donating the ball, Baldelli was presented a lifetime Hall pass from president Dale Petroskey, heard that he was the new favorite player of Petroskey's teenage son and got a thrill, too.

"I could play however long my career is and never have the opportunity to have anything in the Hall again," Baldelli said. "Just knowing it's over there is obviously a good feeling. It would have been nice to take a peek at it."

The charming stadium, with its 1939-built grandstand still in use, doesn't have locker rooms, so the teams dressed at a nearby community sports center, then rode in open-air trolleys through town, managing general partner Vince Naimoli and a sprinkling of green-clad Devil Rays fan along the parade route. This was the first time since its 1940 start the game wasn't played as part of the Hall induction weekend, but from the size of the crowds (9,781 at the game), bolstered by cancellation of classes in some area schools, it still was a success.

The events started with a home run hitting contest at the intimate ballpark (296 feet down the leftfield line, 312 to right), and Ben Grieve had a blast - an event-record 13, actually - in outslugging Travis Lee to win.

Grieve and Lee hit seven in 10 swings during the first round (Philadelphia slugger Jim Thome was shut out), three each in five swings in the second round and went to the fifth frame of a "sudden death" third round before Grieve homered and Lee, who had three earlier chances to eliminate Grieve, popped up. "It was just regular (batting practice) and (coach) Billy Hatcher throws great BP," Grieve said. "I'd take Thome's O-fer here for all the homers he hits during the regular season."

The game itself was akin to a spring exhibition, with most regulars coming out after a few innings and players with high numbers and unfamiliar faces taking over.

The Rays were pleased to get injured shortstop Rey Ordonez back and liked what they saw from the handful of minor-leaguers they brought in, Piniella singling out catcher Pete LaForest.

Down early after Doug Waechter, one of their top starting prospects, gave up two home runs and Philadelphia prospect Cole Hamels dazzled them (nine strikeouts in five innings), the Rays rallied to tie at 5 in the seventh on a homer by minor-leaguer Antonio Perez. But Pat Burrell homered off minor-leaguer Josh Parker in the bottom of the inning, and the Rays never caught up.

They rode busses back to the sports center in uniform, showered, then bussed 90 minutes to Albany for a flight to New York City, where things are a little different.

"It's got to be a great experience for not only the minor-leaguers that we brought up but some of these young major-leaguers we have here," Piniella said. "There was a country fair atmosphere here. It was good."

Today's lineup
  • Jose, can you see? Rays not interested
  • Lou pooh-poohs Yankees interest
  • Rays soak in history
  • Up next: Yankees

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