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Who among them?

The Rays are seeking leaders from within the clubhouse. Whom might they find?

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 11, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Of all the things Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon is looking for this spring, the most important might be the least obvious to identify:

Clubhouse leaders.

"It would definitely accelerate our progress," Maddon said. "Every good team has a couple of guys who handle all the little stuff that comes up."

With many young and somewhat-new-to-the-majors players on the roster and without any obvious big-name star to assume the duty - and with fresh memories of last year's rampant lack of professionalism - Maddon has encouraged several veterans to assume leadership roles: Carl Crawford, Dan Miceli, Greg Norton, Josh Paul and Ty Wigginton.

The responsibilities can be as simple as answering questions about how or why. As subtle as setting a good example by working hard, showing up on time and unselfishly putting the team first. As sensitive as comforting and encouraging a struggling teammate. And as significant as policing the clubhouse, quickly - and, if necessary, loudly - addressing conflicts, controversies and other issues before they erupt.

"On a young team like this you need a lot of that, so it's a team effort," Paul said. "Experience has a lot to do with it. We don't have any veteran superstars around here, but it's not always the superstar who is the best leader. Pretty much all the veteran guys on this team have been on teams that have done things right, and I think it's just a matter of passing that on and exemplifying that."

All, Maddon said, have been willing to do their part, and with good results.

But none necessarily wants to take charge.

As players with part-time roles, Norton, Paul and Miceli are more comfortable in the background, preferring to lead by example. Wigginton will answer questions or pull a straying player aside but isn't the type to stand up in front of the team. Plus, all just came to the Rays last year, and none is necessarily part of the future.

If a true leader is going to emerge, the most logical candidate is Crawford, who is the Rays' best, and highest-paid, player.

But Crawford, 25 and in his fifth full season, is not necessarily ready to take the lead. Nor does he sound particularly eager to step up.

"I just want to keep doing what I've been doing. If that's helping the team or makes me more of a leader, I'm fine with that. But I'm not going to do anything different to fill that role," Crawford said. "That kind of role just kind of finds you; you don't really assign anybody to that kind of role."

Plus, the leftfielder said he's not sure he has earned the right to take charge.

"I can set the example, but I can't really enforce the rules; the veterans can enforce," he said. "I can't threaten a young player that something bad's going to happen to them because I don't have that kind of power. When you have veterans, guys listen more. I'm the same age as everybody, so when I say something, it doesn't have the same effect."

Shy by nature, he took a small step in that direction last month when, at Maddon's request, he spoke to the team during baserunning instruction, and he will be asked to do more.

But Crawford said the Rays were better off when they had established veterans such as Fred McGriff and Tino Martinez to handle the job, and he would like to see the Rays add some veteran presence.

"Everybody ran up to those guys when they had a question," Crawford said. "We don't have that fella here. That's not disrespect to the guys that are here, it's just the truth. ... We need them in here. I need somebody, too."

Sometimes one player can make a difference, controlling the clubhouse and setting the tone. Amid the zaniness of New York, Derek Jeter does it for the Yankees. Darin Erstad did it extremely well for the Angels, establishing a tremendous presence without saying much.

"He's an unbelievable leader," Paul said. "He was prepared every single day to play the game with whatever he had, and just by doing that I think he made guys around him better. And by doing that he had the right to expect people around him to do it as well."

The value of leadership, like other intangibles such as team chemistry and resiliency, can sometimes be a convenient quotient of success: Winning teams are said to have it and losing teams not.

Maddon, though, is a big believer, and he said he would considering naming a captain in a future season. And when enough leadership develops, the ultimate goal is for the players to police themselves.

"If you're on a good winning team, you're going to have 25 leaders," Wigginton said. "You have 25 leaders and everyone is doing what they need to do to prepare on a nightly basis."

Fast Facts:

On deck

Monday: Tigers at Progress Energy Park, 1:05. Rays - Casey Fossum; Tigers - Jeremy Bonderman

Tuesday: Phillies at Progress Energy Park, 1:05. Rays - Scott Kazmir; Phillies - TBA

Wednesday: Reds at Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota, 7:05. Rays - TBA; Reds - Bronson Arroyo

Thursday: Indians at Chain O'Lakes Park, Winter Haven, 7:05. Rays - Jae Seo; Indians - TBA