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The Rays' spring will focus on togetherness as well as the fundamentals.
By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- The inscription on the side of Larry Rothschild's sparkling 1997 World Series championship ring reads "One heartbeat," the team-first theme Florida manager Jim Leyland instilled from the first spring day of what became a magical season.
Rothschild doesn't wear the ring much, but the slogan has stuck with him. And while he won't copy the exact phrase, Rothschild plans to borrow from the concept when his Tampa Bay team opens spring training on Saturday.
"I think we need to leave here and have everybody on the same page. I think that's important," Rothschild said. "With all the transition this team has gone through over three years, all the players we've used and everything, it's hard to get everyone together as a group. I think it's important now that everything is set that the focus is on winning every day, winning a game every day."
To sharpen that focus, Rothschild will make togetherness a central theme throughout the spring. He plans to talk about it with the full squad and to meet with a select group of veterans to solicit input about ways to reinforce the idea. "The way I know how to get things done is to communicate, and that's where it is going to start," he said.
While Rothschild is careful not to say the team wasn't together during the three previous springs, he says it is a priority this year. And he acknowledges the process may be a little more challenging since the Rays train in their regular-season home city. Many players have year-round homes and full-time family responsibilities here, and they don't spend as much time together away from the field as other teams do.
More significantly, Rothschild said he thinks high personnel turnover -- a combined product of the expansion process, a steady stream of injuries, last winter's spending spree and a number of ensuing payroll-reducing trades -- has taken a toll. The Rays have gone through 84 players in three seasons, and 49 are no longer active players in the organization. Of the 52 players the team dressed last season, 20 were traded, waived or allowed to leave.
"It's been tough for guys to get settled when there is not any consistent period of time where there are the same 25 players," he said. "It seems like every time we got things going there'd be another major injury or something happened like a trade. It would be nice to think there will be at least some semblance of normality for a period of time."
In other words, retaining the bulk of a team that finished last season with 69 wins might be a good thing.
Having spent the first two seasons assembling a team from the clearance racks, then renovating it last spring with the haul of veterans, Rothschild is looking forward to the stability and familiarity of a roster that is relatively intact.
It's possible there may be only two newcomers of consequence, outfielder Ben Grieve and rookie second baseman Brent Abernathy, and there aren't likely to be any more major departures, at least not until the July trading deadline. Still, a number of major issues need to be resolved over the next seven weeks.
Among other things, the Rays have to determine whether pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Juan Guzman, Paul Wilson and Ryan Rupe are healthy enough to be in the rotation; who from a markedly inexperienced crew will replace closer Roberto Hernandez; how playing time and DH assignments will be distributed among outfielders Greg Vaughn and Grieve and first basemen Steve Cox and Fred McGriff; and whether Abernathy is ready to take over.
"Obviously," Rothschild said, "we have some important decisions to make."
Last season, fueled by the addition of veterans Vaughn, Guzman, Vinny Castilla, Gerald Williams and Steve Trachsel, the Rays opened camp amid considerable hype and expectations of a post-season run.
This winter, there has been no such talk.
"I kind of like it the way it is this year," Rothschild said. "It's been quiet and we're just going to come into spring training and get our work done."
Together, he hopes.