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Naimoli to New York: Hands off our manager

The Rays owner says Lou Piniella will finish his contract regardless of rumors about the Mets.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published September 14, 2004

BOSTON - If the Mets fire Art Howe, that's their business.

But the Mets, and the New York media, have no business thinking Lou Piniella is going to replace him, Devil Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli said Monday.

What had been talk radio fodder and columnists' musings reached a new level Monday when New York's Daily News reported the Mets will fire their manager and that Piniella is their first - and thus far only - choice to replace him.

But Naimoli said Piniella, who is signed through 2006, isn't going anywhere.

"A contract is a contract. We honor contracts and we expect them to be honored," Naimoli said. "We're happy with Lou and look to be associated with him for a long time."

Speculation about Piniella going to New York dates to October 2002, when Piniella, expressing a desire to get closer to his Tampa home, got out of the final year of his contract in Seattle.

The Rays and Mets pursued him and the Rays won, striking a deal for compensation with the Mariners, then signing Piniella to a four-year, $13-million contract.

The Mets instead hired Howe, giving him a four-year, $9.4-million deal, and have struggled mightily. They finished last in 2003 with a 66-95 record and are threatening to do so again this year with a 61-81 mark, despite a $101-million opening-day payroll that was fourth highest in the game.

Talk about bringing in Piniella surfaced again at the end of last season and has been a popular topic in New York in recent weeks, fueled by the Mets' continued struggles as well as Piniella's frustration with the Rays' performance and their reluctance to make more than gradual increases to their $23-million payroll, the lowest in the game. Some reports have gone as far as suggesting the Mets and Rays would trade managers.

"It's wild speculation on a person who has a contract," Naimoli said. "It's something honestly I'm tired of hearing. I don't want to hear any more about one of our co-workers who has a contract."

Asked recently about the situation, Piniella said he planned on being with the Rays for the remainder of his contract.

"I'm here. I'm doing the best job I can," Piniella said. "I enjoy the winning part of the job more than anything else. And here it has been a reality check in a way. We're getting better, and I look to the day we can compete with these better teams and beat them."

The Rays went 63-99 in Piniella's first season and are 61-80 going into tonight's game.

Mets general manager Jim Duquette on Monday didn't confirm or deny the Daily News story, telling reporters in New York no decision had been made and it was an ongoing process. "Obviously, the organization, we're all frustrated because we haven't played the way we wanted. Obviously, the frustration goes all the way up to the front office."

Howe said if he was going to be fired, he would like to know now: "Why put me through this? I'd rather have it happen now. There's no sense in waiting."

Whatever they decide, Naimoli acknowledged that the speculation is likely to continue.

"It will go on and on as long as the New York Daily News and the New York Post want it to," he said.

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in the report.

[Last modified September 14, 2004, 00:35:26]

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