By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- There is no doubt the Rays will miss Roberto Hernandez's pitching ability. He may have occasionally made things more exciting than they needed to be, but there is no easy way -- as the Rays soon will find out -- to replace his experience in getting the precious final outs in a game.
Hernandez, shipped to Kansas City in the three-way deal that netted the Rays Ben Grieve, will leave a large void off the field as well.
"I think they lost a big leader in the clubhouse," pitcher Albie Lopez said. "He was one of the guys a lot of the pitchers looked up to."
A worldly and bilingual veteran with the security of a long-term contract, Hernandez was not afraid to speak up when he felt it was necessary, whether it was questioning the team's direction, criticizing a front-office decision, or something as benign as complaining about security or team travel plans. His occasional outbursts may have tweaked team officials but earned him the respect of many players.
Hernandez also made it a point, if not a mission, to help the young players.
At 36, Hernandez had faced nearly every situation. He'd been through career-threatening surgery, he'd been in the post-season, he'd been traded, he'd been a free agent. He'd finished first, and he'd finished last. He'd won big games, saved big games, blown big games.
In the bullpen, he would tell the young pitchers how to attack certain hitters and how to handle certain situations. In the clubhouse, he'd provide advice on how to deal with the media. On the road, he'd offer counsel on where and where not to go.
"He just knows about the game," said pitcher Wilson Alvarez, a teammate for 10 years with the White Sox, Giants and Rays. "He was just a great person on and off the field. I don't know about the other guys, but I know I will miss him. We have it on our minds to take what we learned all these years and pass it to the kids, and that's what he was doing."
Hernandez made an effort to guide the young pitchers, especially the Latins. He was there to help Rolando Arrojo, was there to help Lopez, was there to help Esteban Yan, who now will try to fill Hernandez's role.
"He helped me a lot," Yan said. "He would point things out all the time, like when I was warming up and he'd tell me to keep my elbow down.
"He'd tell me, "You can be the closer.' One time he even told me, "I'm only here because you're not ready to be the closer.' "
Yan may be able to do the job. But it won't be that easy to replace the man.
FOR STARTERS: If Yan struggles, there will be suggestions to move Lopez, who made 152 consecutive relief appearances before going into the rotation, back to the back end of the bullpen. Not going to happen, Lopez says. "I'm in the rotation now," he said. "I have to do my job."
TOE'S JAM: Toe Nash's reputation certainly has preceded him to minor-league spring training, and general manager Chuck LaMar said he was looking forward to an "interesting" first meeting next month with the talented prospect with a troubled past. "He's going to know that since he signed a Devil Rays contract he's going to conduct himself like a Tampa Bay Devil Ray," LaMar said. "I don't think you're going to see many of the problems that he had in the past here, and if you do he won't be here very long."
TICKET TAPE: The team plans to continue its program of heavily discounting tickets for most games. On Mondays upper general admission and outfield seats will be half price, on Tuesdays upper GA tickets are discounted with a coupon from a Tampa newspaper, on Wednesdays there will be a ticket special posted on the team Web site, on Fridays there are discounted ticket and drink packages and Sundays again will feature family discounts. Also, seniors will get discounts for all non-holiday weekday afternoon games. ... Among the promotions, there will be warmup jackets for kids on April22, T-shirts on May 6, batting helmets June 10, a "screaming slamming Raysball" on June 24, a glove on July8, a Raymond bobble-head doll on Aug. 12, and a lunch box on Sept. 2.
FEELING GROOVY: The Rays can do all the drills they want, hold meetings from dawn to dusk and review stats and game tapes 24/7. But if they are going to show significant improvement, they are going to have to avoid the health problems that crippled them in each of the first three seasons. "This is the year I think that things come together as far as getting away from some of the injuries," manager Larry Rothschild said. "The odds are certainly our favor."