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It's time for Rays to win over the bay

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


Good old boys are racing at Daytona, good old golfers tuning in Tampa, but can we talk pitchers and catchers?

Spring training is here. Saturday morning, in St. Petersburg's winter sunshine, the Devil Rays begin perspiring pursuit of a season certain to have heavy effect on Tampa Bay persona in Major League Baseball.

It's time for the Rays to win, because last place is so cold and unfulfilling. Time to ignore the droning, stereotyped, predictable complainers on Tropicana Field, making it the best and friendliest a dome can be for patrons.

Time to see if our complex, water-divided community can have real fun with, and deep pride in, its ballclub. Time to prove Tampa Bay is (a) good, (b) mediocre or (c) poor as a baseball venue. Time to know whether the sport has ample magnetism around here.

It does figure, if odds and fairness mean anything, that D-Rays luck will improve in 2001. Instead of homers, wins, saves and runs, Tampa Bay has been leading the American League in bum shoulders, cranky knees, aching hips, aggravated ankles and noses out of joint.

Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman were paid a combined $15-million to pitch last season, but Cy Young and Walter Johnson won as many games in 2000 as manager Larry Rothschild's torture tandem. Zero!

Word is, Alvarez and Guzman are healthy. We'll believe it when they accumulate more Ws than the White House. When onlookers gather in coming days at the Raymond Naimoli complex, the money arms of Wilson and Juan will get constant stares.

Snake eyes, or rabbit's feet?

Vinny Castilla spent the off-season rehearsing in Mexico. When the full Rays squad arrives a week from now, we'll see if the wealthy third baseman has found rebound with his bat speed, health and hope.

Spring is historically an optimistic stretch, not only for the rich, powerful Yankees, Braves, Mets and Cardinals. You'll see bright eyes and upbeat attitudes too at the camps of the poorer, straining Twins, Royals, Expos and Rays.

Reality begins in April.

If success comes, especially the status of a contender, Tampa Bay isn't apt to do it with 30ish free agents such as Castilla, Alvarez and Guzman. It must happen with young jocks, mostly developed in the Rays farm system. Fruits must appear soon, or the vineyard will be in real trouble.

Between now and Opening Day, we'll see if gifted outfielder Josh Hamilton is ready to take a bite of the big leagues. It's time that Matt White, an amateur free agent signing in 1996, and similar comrades begin to show they are worth the investments.

If you drop by the Naimoli complex, or catch Grapefruit League exams in March, spend a while assessing Brent Abernathy, who could be Rothschild's second baseman now that the erratic Miguel Cairo has been dispensed.

Checking the prospects. Daydreaming. Always a huge part of baseball's spring, something Phillies fans have been doing for generations in Clearwater and Tigers devotees in Lakeland, along with those who gravitate to the Blue Jays in Dunedin, world champion Yanks in Tampa and so many franchises that grace our peninsula.

Rothschild has a positive quandary: how to make the most of three good left-handed bats that come with limited defensive possibilities: Fred McGriff, Steve Cox and the just-acquired Ben Grieve.

Eventually, it'll be something to debate and argue. Does the skipper rotate Cox and McGriff at first base, also working them as designated hitters? Will it be Grieve, who's slow afoot and has a lukewarm arm, as the regular rightfielder or will Cox be blended there?

Greg Vaughn in leftfield and Gerald Williams in center provide stability, both as hitters and fielders, although the Hamilton factor could become apparent. More fodder for discussion. Unless their luck is terminally odious, we should absolutely expect the Rays to score more runs and hit more homers in 2001.

Nothing is more uncertain than Larry's bullpen. Gone are the main three from this time last year, closer Roberto Hernandez and setup men Rick White and Jim Mecir. We'll see whether Esteban Yan has the consistency to take the Roberto role. Two days before check-in, the bullpen seems a crapshoot.

There are raw prospects. Tampa Bay's 40-man spring roster has eight fellows who were No. 1 draft picks since 1994. Last year, the Rays lost some long-range focus, trying to force-feed the product by spending a fortune on free agents. Results were generally lousy.

Baseball, on the whole, has a major mess. Labor scuffles are an enormous public turnoff. Even when it's terrific and extraordinary young men such as Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter getting contracts that would make Donald Trump gag, how difficult for you and me to relate to athletes getting $100,000 a game.

But, for the Rays, who even with larger crowds would be unlikely to afford the biggest and most obnoxious of payrolls, there still are undeniable answers ... such as playing really hard, behaving notably well and working overtime at connecting with ticket-holders and winning.

An intriguing summer nears.

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