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Rays see model in Lightning

Published May 30, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - A poor record, empty seats, ownership issues, tiny payrolls, constantly changing plans, a bad reputation, an uncertain future.

And, still, your Tampa Bay Lightning is playing this week for the Stanley Cup.

The Devil Rays can relate all too well to what the Lightning went through on the way. But, according to managing general partner Vince Naimoli, they can also learn from what the Lightning did to get it right.

"I think there are valuable lessons from the Lightning," Naimoli said. "One is they had a very good young player ( Vinny Lecavalier) who had some ups and downs and they stuck with him and grew with him and they were rewarded accordingly. ...

"The second lesson is the youth. Bringing up the youth and staying with the youth and suffering through some bad times so you get to the good times. And third is that they have been very astute in blending in some veterans with some fine young players.

"All these are things we've been doing. In the Lightning's case, they are certainly further ahead on it since they got to the Stanley Cup, but I think they provide a valuable lesson not only for us but for any franchise."

Seeing the Tampa Bay market respond to the Lightning's success - roaring, sellout crowds, strong merchandise sales, newspaper special sections - makes Naimoli confident the same will happen when the Rays win.

"I think the community response is terrific," he said. "But you have to support a team in bad times as well as good. It's wonderful to see everyone supporting them in good times, but I would hope they support them in other times."

Even though the Lightning's postseason run has taken attention, and fans, away from the Rays, Naimoli said he "couldn't be more delighted" about their success.

"They had their share of knocks along the way, so to see them rise to where they are now, I think it's wonderful for everyone."

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Charles Gipson's impressions of B.J. Upton at Durham: "The first word that came to mind when I saw him play is phenom." Baseball America, meanwhile, writes: "Start the countdown for the next great shortstop arriving in the American League." ... The Rays are awaiting delivery of the Supergroomer machine to help maintain and soften the FieldTurf. ... The Japan trip netted the Rays players $43,000 each, and they voted 43 shares. ... The Rays have to honor the Lightning at their next homestand, don't they? ... Fred McGriff may only be making the minimum $300,000 this tour, but he is still getting millions in deferred salary from his first stint. ... With three homers in four games, Barry Bonds appears in fine form to take aim at the Trop catwalks June 8-10.

DRAFT DAZE: The Rays may take a position player with the fourth pick in the June 7 draft - Georgia prep shortstop Chris Nelson is considered their likely choice - but by the end of the 50 rounds they plan to stock up on pitchers. "No matter how we come out in the early rounds, we've got to draft a lot of pitchers this year," Naimoli said. Some of the college pitchers that were lined up at the top of the draft are falling, which could further muddle an unclear draft. Old Dominion's Justin Verlander seems to have dropped out of the top five, while Rice's Jeff Niemann has not impressed.

Still, most projections are for Jered Weaver and Niemann to be the top picks by the Padres and Tigers. Depending on what the Mets do third, the Rays could have their choice of Rice pitchers Wade Townsend or Philip Humber, FSU shortstop Stephen Drew, Texas prep pitcher Homer Bailey or Nelson.

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