Time for Rays' talk to swing into action

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 15, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - The owner, Stuart Sternberg, has spent the money. The front office, led by executive vice president Andrew Friedman, has made the deals to add needed pieces. The manager, Joe Maddon, has developed a plan to put it all together.

As the Rays open their 11th spring this morning amid great enthusiasm and grand expectations, the burden of improvement now shifts to the players.

"Absolutely," senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker said. "No question. It's great that we're getting all this attention and we are genuinely excited about coming into this season, but it's time to step up and walk the walk. It's time to prove that we're for real, that we can get it done on the field."

Accountability will be word one when Maddon addresses the pitchers and catchers before today's first workout, when the position players arrive next week and throughout the spring as the Rays seek to make the leap to respectability, if not into contention.

"We've evaluated these guys, they have experience, we've seen ... all these things, it's about time we started actually doing it on the field and not just talking about it," Maddon said.

"That's going to be a big push for this spring training. ... All we've been talking about the last two days is how do we get it to the next level? How does all this theory turn into wins? We do have to raise the accountability fire. And that's for all of us. I'm not just going to lay that on the players. That's all of us. We're all accountable, we're all responsible for this thing getting better."

After an offseason of big changes - new name, new uniforms, new attitude - what now will be most important to their success, Maddon said, are the little things.

Getting runners in from third base. Making plays that should be made. Getting down bunts. Making pitches to get outs when needed.

"The biggest part is the little things, and we've got to get better at that," Maddon said. "We've preached it, we've talked about it and in addressing our coaching staff about it, I think, I believe, we're at a point now where we have a bunch of guys able to take this and go to the next level and actually get it."

The next project is the big picture.

"One of the biggest challenges coming in two years ago was changing the mind-set of the organization, changing the mentality, and the most important part of that was getting the players to start believing, and I think we've taken quantum leaps in that regard," Friedman said.

"But it's carrying it over, it's going out and executing and playing consistently over an extended period of time. We've seen flashes of it, but it's playing to a consistently high level over a period of time. And that comes with believing, with changing that mind-set so that when you go out on the field each and every night that you expect to win. Starting to believe that and getting it to the point where 25 guys are playing together toward a common goal is something I hope to see really start to take form this year."

The next phase starts today. And it starts where it matters most, on the field.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.