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Sunday Punch

Hope springs eternal for Rays, and yet ...

Published February 8, 2004

You have the Lightning that, for the first time, has a legit chance to plow deep into Stanley Cup playoffs. If the Lightning is as impressive in April as it was in January, the Red Wings, Flyers and Canucks aren't such unreachable playoff prey.

Expectations for the Bucs are now extreme, pained by the loss of Super Bowl identity to NFC South rival Carolina, so seasons with a 7-9 record or even 9-7 in the Jon Gruden coaching era are as intolerable as bed bugs in Florida mansions.

Then there's baseball...

Tampa Bay's possibilities are painful despite being armed with Lou Piniella, an extraordinary manager. Financial resources are so doomed that it would be a marvelous summer to escape the AL East dungeon where Tropsters have resided since their creation.

They have less chance of truly competing with the Yankees or Red Sox than Roseanne has to be the national anthem singer at next year's Super Bowl in Jacksonville.

It bothers me that five rich, well-meaning, local Rays investors are about to sell out. They are frustrated, embarrassed and angry at managing general partner Vince Naimoli, a guy who could be harder to dislodge from his throne than anybody in the Middle East.

Losing these homeboy bankrollers, all with considerable local business strength and solid reputations, is an ugly sign. But they're fed up. I don't blame them. They feel powerless to make things better.

They're staying quiet, being legally gagged from making public statements about the pending sale to Stuart Sternberg, a New York baseball maven with big bags of money.

It is clear Naimoli is adept at making citizens, advertisers, politicians and investors mad at him, the No.1 pain for a Rays operation that, even with splendid leadership, may have little chance to ever rise beyond third or fourth place in the AL East.

An even larger impediment is Major League Baseball itself, commanded by Bud Selig, a low-savvy commissioner who earned this $6.5-million job by running one of the game's lousiest franchises, the Milwaukee Brewers.

Revenue imbalances appear incurable. Tampa Bay is one of maybe 20 baseball franchises with all but zero chance of becoming champions. Vanderbilt has a better shot at winning the SEC in football. Especially with even weaker attendance than the lowly Rays deserve, including no sellouts since the franchise's inaugural night in 1998.

Last season, I found the D-Rays more intriguing than ever. Most of their ghastly, overpaid, unproductive turkeys from the "Hit Show" debacle are gone. Piniella had the Rays playing hard. Overachieving, even in last place. Still, the public chose to be rather apathetic.

If you operate the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, Braves and few other behemoths with enormous radio/TV income, there is little interest in spreading wealth and seeking balance with teams that reap less than half as much money as the heavyweights.

I don't know what Sternberg has in mind. Really rich people are seldom willing to pour tens of millions into a hopeless hole.

Maybe he eventually will buy out Naimoli, who owns about 15 percent of the Rays.

But what then?

Move them to Brooklyn?

There is jabbering about a new Tampa Bay ballpark in a dramatically different location. So what if a half-billion-dollar stadium rises in Ybor City and the team continues to lose and spectator interest temporarily zooms but then subsides?

Where are the guarantees?

I love baseball. It was the first sporting charm of my life. It's still a splendid physical and mental exercise. But with nonsensical player salaries, a horrible imbalance of franchise revenues, plus a Tampa Bay public that ranks somewhere between intolerant and disinterested, I don't know if it can work.

It's almost spring. I want to have hope. Excitement for a new D-Rays season. And I do. My hope is that Piniella is so sensational and gets lucky with some kids and your team challenges for next-to-last place in the AL East.

It'd be a major accomplishment.

What do you think, Vince?

* * *

SQUEEZE BUNTS: Such stats tend to be suppressed in the dunky, funky NBA, but let's hear it for Brad Miller and Vlade Divac, two Sacramento 7-footers who pass so adeptly they average 10.1 assists, outdoing 23 starting backcourt combinations in the league. ... Billy Donovan's Gators are struggling but women's basketball is cooking at Florida (15-5), urged by Carolyn Peck, a coach who outdid Tennessee, U-Conn, Duke and other NCAA giants to win a national championship at Purdue.

THE LAST WORD: You might've noticed that my man, Bob Knight, had a verbal scrimmage with the university chancellor for whom he works at Texas Tech. But no vinaigrette or Thousand Island was poured over the boss' head.

And all this came at a gourmet salad bar in Lubbock, a healthy leap from the yummy barbecue dive where the old Indiana coach used to take me in Bloomington. Call it what you will, but I opt for "progress" and "mellowing."

[Last modified February 8, 2004, 01:45:41]

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