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Area fans finally have
a team of their own


©St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 1998

ST. PETERSBURG -- Always, since the heroes were Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, through the triumphant generations of Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, Pete Rose, Tom Seaver and Ozzie Smith, disciples have romanticized over the first mitt-poppings and bat-crackings of budding baseball springtimes.

But, on a cool and historic Sunday morning, Florida's marvelous old ritual took on an invigorating new home-sweet-home meaning.

Fifty ballplayers wearing Devil Rays uniforms romped out at 9:35, hearing polite applause from a few hundred onlookers. Athletes began to dig spikes of hope into infields of orange clay at the St. Petersburg complex.

Your team.

Eight catchers and 33 pitchers, blended with five infielders and four outfielders who reported ahead of schedule, experienced The First Practice by running, stretching, fielding, throwing, catching, hitting and dreaming.

Media were hovering, doing no stretching or running. Print journalists. Radio and television practitioners. Devil Rays are a major story. A familiar gray head was among Sunday's interviewers. Peter Gammons, baseball analyst for ESPN, was preparing a piece for cable jockdom.

For us major-league rookies, seeing Gammons there provided a touch of authenticity. Tampa Bay really does have a team. After all the pains of the long chase, I must keep reminding myself.

Tampa Bay's baseball metamorphosis, the enriching of a community's longtime identity as a Yanks-Cards-Phils-Mets-Reds-Jays spring training locale, is now delightfully in high-speed escalation.

What began as a brash Pinellas County idea in the 1970s would mature into Tampa Bay's disappointing 1980s franchise pursuits, but suddenly on fresh-air Sunday -- did I say suddenly? -- there was popping/cracking 1990s ballfield reality.

"Another milestone," said Vince Naimoli, managing general partner of Tampa Bay's franchise.

"Opening Day (March 31) comes closer with each heartbeat." He went from locker to locker, shaking hands and welcoming players.

For the first time since 1919, a big-league baseball team opts to perform its preseason labors of February and March within hometown limits. Devil Rays Spring Training Complex sits imposingly in western St. Petersburg, 7 miles from Tropicana Field and maybe 1,200 yards from Tyrone Square.

Cardinals once flew there.

In one of the great facelifts this side of Hollywood, the erstwhile Busch Complex has been painted, polished, repaired, primed and renamed. May it be anything but an inferiority complex.

You are invited.

Free, for now.

Fans have strolling areas among the diamonds. There are bleacher seats. In quieter times, observers can hear as manager Larry Rothschild and a flurry of Rays coaches lecture their uniformed prospects. Straining to produce a 1998 squad that will have as little resemblance as possible to a 1962 horror that was the 120-loss expansionist New York Mets.

It was fascinating to watch four catchers playing a little phantom baseball. John Flaherty, Tim Laker, Bob Natal and Mike DiFelice were armed with mitts, masks, chin guards and chest protectors. With two coaches overseeing, the catchers practiced blocking low pitches. Only there were no baseballs involved. Just imagination. Pretending that a curve had dipped into the dirt, then lunging to keep a phantom throw from becoming a phantom wild pitch.

A unique sport.

Baseball locker rooms are different from those in football, basketball or hockey. They are roomier. Homier. Players spend many more hours there. Mostly, they lounge around in underpants, T-shirts and long white sanitary hose.

Three guys were getting arm rubs in an adjacent medical room. A few more were seated at a long table, reading Sunday newspapers. For now, there was no obnoxiously loud music in the clubhouse. That unfortunately will come. Clubhouse, in this case, is a unique baseball thing. It means locker room.

Breakfast food and sandwiches were everywhere. Starvation is no threat.

Catchers and pitchers are the primary focus until Friday's first full-squad workout. But those nine volunteers gathered on the most remote of the complex's diamonds. Eager to swing bats.

Paul Sorrento lofted one over a chain-link fence in rightfield. It almost carried into a lake. Kids chased a souvenir baseball.

Herbert Perry took his cuts. There was a foul fly to left. Over a fence. It almost hit a little girl who was walking with her mother. But, after a leap of fear, little blondie went after the rolling baseball, then ran away with a grin and a Rays trophy held high.

Perry is one of the more familiar Rays names. Not only due to his time as a Cleveland Indians first baseman, but also before that when the kid from Mayo was a Florida quarterback in the late 1980s.

Another former UF quarterback, Chan Gailey, recently was named coach of the Cowboys. There was a special connection with Perry. "My daddy," he explained, "being a big Gators fan, noticed Chan Gailey's name during his Gainesville days (1970-75). When my brother was born, Daddy decided to name him Chan. But we pronounce it Shan."

Every day, we'll learn more about these original Devil Rays. Not only their batting averages and ERAs, but loads of personal stuff. Like the Chan Gailey anecdote. It's different now. We're no longer spending the Florida springtime watching only some ballclub from Philadelphia or New York or Toronto. At last, Tampa Bay has one of its own.

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©Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.