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Different start for a different season?

The Rays are optimistic that today's "strange" season opener is the beginning of an improved season.

Published March 30, 2004

TOKYO - The Devil Rays open their most optimistic season today under the most unusual circumstances, including that the first game will be over before most of the preview stories are read.

The anything-but-regular season opener against the Yankees started at 7 p.m. in Tokyo, which was 5 a.m. Tampa Bay time, and it's on ESPN2 and WDAE-AM 620 if you want to check the score before 8.

The Rays have struggled with a lot of things since they've been in Japan: the food, the language, the time difference, the raucous atmosphere at the Tokyo Dome.

And Monday they struggled with how to describe an opener that will take place halfway around the world in the middle of the night amid unfamiliar pageantry and customs.

"Strange," Tino Martinez said. "A little bit crazy," Danys Baez said. "Different," Damian Rolls said. "That's my word."

"I haven't figured it out yet," Toby Hall said.

The basics are odd enough.

These are Devil Rays home games that otherwise would have been played at Tropicana Field, but the Rays will wear spring training road uniforms (so the Yankees can wear their traditional pinstripes) and won't have any kind of homefield advantage with a sellout crowd coming to cheer (and sing, chant, play music, blow whistles and hit sticks) for national hero Hideki Matsui, the Yankees leftfielder.

The pregame ceremony will make it flat-out weird, unless you're bored with the whole samurai sword dance thing by now.

There will be dozens of dancers roaming the field in traditional Japanese costumes and dress, a 10-person sword dance with samurai, a performance by 90 musicians playing the shamisen (think bad banjo), a massive bouquet of flowers delivered to managers Lou Piniella and Joe Torre, a Japanese translation of the national anthem on the videoboard, and a first pitch by one of the biggest Yankees fans in the world, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who will share the honor with Japan Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Martinez and Matsui will catch the pitches. (St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker was invited but he couldn't come because of a personal matter.)

Managing general partner Vince Naimoli said the exposure is a tremendous benefit to the organization. General manager Chuck LaMar said the experience is well worth it and the "sense of urgency" obvious. Piniella said, "There's no excuses, and we're ready to play."

The players aren't as sure.

Their body clocks are synched up somewhere between Tokyo and Tampa Bay, meaning some can't sleep, some are sleeping all the time, and some are changing from day to day, though they don't necessarily know what day it is. Obviously, few will be at their best.

"I just hope we can battle the next two days and the adrenaline gets us through," Rays designated hitter Aubrey Huff said. "But we're still going to be tired."

Distractions from the festivities, including the crazed bands in the stands and the swarms of Japanese media, are another issue. So too are the facilities, with nets down the sidelines, a fast all-FieldTurf infield, and bullpens underneath the stands.

"I'm sure when we come out for batting practice it's going to seem like another exhibition," Martinez said.

"We've got to remember that the wins count."

The scheduling of the games adds to the uniqueness of the event.

Both teams will fly home after Wednesday's game and go back to spring training, with workouts and exhibition games over the weekend. The Rays set their roster nearly a week ago but are talking with teams about end-of-spring deals. The schedule is such that the Rays could pitch ace Victor Zambrano in their first, third and eighth games of the season (all against the Yankees). And, there's the little matter of Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield making their official Yankees debuts - in March.

In a way, all the oddness surrounding the opener seems appropriate.

The Rays are coming off their most successful offseason in terms of making improvements and are convinced they are a better team - "the best we've put on the field," LaMar said. Piniella has promised they'll escape last place for the first time in their seven-year history and approach a .500 record.

"We're looking forward to the start of a baseball season," Piniella said. "Let's hope we get off to a good start here in the month of, well, we're still in March, right? We're looking forward to the challenge.

"I said prior to spring training that we'd have a nice ballclub, and I really haven't seen anything that changes my mind."

But the stark reality is the Rays could be much better, but the rest of the AL East has improved so much they might have a hard time winning many more games than last season's 63.

"It will go down," LaMar said, "as one of the most unique openers ever."

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