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Facelift burden shifts to diamond
The suits did their part in the offseason, now it's up to the Rays to keep the good times rolling.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published April 2, 2006
BALTIMORE - They've made dozens of changes, shook hundreds of hands, invested thousands of hours and spent millions of dollars to try to re-establish the legitimacy - if not the viability - of the tattered Devil Rays franchise.
But for all the good the team's new ownership and management has done - and, at least by historical comparison, it has been a lot - they're about to turn the ball over to a bunch of kids running around on the dirt.
When Julio Lugo walks to the plate this afternoon for the first pitch of the season, the focus - and the onus - shifts from what the new Rays have done a good job of controlling with a steady stream of good news announcements to something over which they have no control, which is the results on the field.
And for a team that has essentially been on a six-month winning streak since Stuart Sternberg's group took over on Oct. 6, that could be a whole new ballgame.
"The staff is not going to get one at-bat all year. The guys in the suits and ties are not going to get one at-bat all year," outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "Come Baltimore, it really is up to us. We pretty much have our destiny and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' future in the palm of our hands right now."
Have a good season, especially with a thrilling start, and the momentum from the offseason of change could keep building, leading to increased attendance, additional revenues and, perhaps, an accelerated path to respectability and then contention.
Have a bad season, especially with a brutal beginning, and the momentum could come to a screeching halt, the progress of re-establishing the franchise stalled or even reversed, the familiar refrains of losing and ineptness making it seem as if nothing has changed.
"I think a good season would help in the clubhouse, with the public perception, maybe the way ownership plans how the team is going to go. Maybe things could get sped up," said centerfielder Rocco Baldelli, one of the cornerstone players signed to long-term deals. "Playing well and having a good win-loss record changes a lot of things. It could mean the whole way everyone perceives a team could be changed in a year."
And if it turns out to go the other way ...
"I think the last thing anyone in the clubhouse wants to talk about is having another season like we'd had in the past," Baldelli said. "Everyone on this team and everyone in this organization from the top down has done a lot to try to change everyone's idea of where this team is going. I think they've done a good job so far. Even talking about having a bad season really doesn't do much for us."
"I don't think it ruins it, but I think it slows it down," Gomes said. "From all the work they did - and they did a lot for one offseason - I really think it would take a catastrophe to straight out ruin it."
The Rays, though, know from catastrophe. And that is the gamble the new ownership/management group is taking, that whatever happens on the field - no matter how bad it is - won't retard all the good they have done.
"We're proud of the progress we have made as an organization this offseason," team president Matt Silverman said. "And no matter how the season shakes out, and we hope it will be a great one, we're even more positive about the long-term vitality of the franchise.
"In our minds we have reaffirmed that there is a love of baseball in this area and that our fans want a major-league baseball team that they can be proud of, and we know we can deliver upon that."
They could have made it an easier sell by spending more to make the team better, rather than a slight increase in payroll to around $35-million, which will still be smaller than all but the Marlins, and some $150-million shy of the Yankees.
Between the money they've spent to renovate Tropicana Field from the bathrooms up, improve the team infrastructure and hire new staff, and the money they're not getting as a result of lowering prices, allowing fans to bring food and offering free parking, they've committed at least $15-million this offseason. (That doesn't include millions they paid just to get former managing general partner Vince Naimoli and other top officials out of the way.)
The argument can be made that they should have gotten a better relief pitcher rather than making it more comfortable for fans to relieve themselves.
But Silverman said in the long-term view it was more important to fix the myriad of off-field issues first, with a plan to build the team up in future years and be in a position business-wise to sustain success. The tricky part is doing that without making it sound like the 2006 season doesn't matter.
"The business challenge is to allocate our limited resources," Silverman said. "We have to fix the business side. Because without that any baseball success would be hollow and wouldn't help lift the business."
As much as executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman might have liked to wrestle facilities vice president Rick Nafe for an extra couple of million, he too said the team has to be rebuilt this way. "There's a requisite infrastructure we have to have in place to build off of," Friedman said.
The current players would have liked to have the roster supplemented and their chances at winning increased, but they also seem to understand the plan to build up the franchise and appreciate the new group's efforts. Carl Crawford said it seems like "we're a new expansion team again" and even veteran Aubrey Huff, who isn't shy about pointing out what's wrong, said he thinks they are on the right course.
"What this front office has done hands down is the best I've seen since I've been here," Huff said. "Everything here is positive. You can actually walk by one of the front office guys and not want to turn the other way."
Manager Joe Maddon said one of his priorities is making sure the team's bad play doesn't hurt the franchise's progress.
"It can only retard it regarding how we act," Maddon said. "If we react like, "Here we go again,' then there will be every reason to believe, "Here we go again.' I'm very aware of that."
As much as the players want to reciprocate, Jorge Cantu said it won't lead to them putting pressure on themselves. "It's not like we're saying to ourselves, "We have to do great for these people because they've done so much for us,' " he said. "They understand it's baseball, and we either win or lose."
But this season, it seems, it might be more than a game.