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Rays enjoy serving of optimism this spring


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- It's beyond the historic, exaggerated optimism that festers in baseball's spring. "Players know," said Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild. "They can see what's happening around here."

Talent rising. Hope gushing.

Into the Wednesday sunshine, Tampa Bay's men strode. All the Rays not named Jose. Guillen had document trouble coming from the Dominican Republic. Canseco's difficulties in escaping Miami are predictable. He is, after all, "Omega Ray," always last to appear.

Among players at work, you saw a smiling new No. 20, "Castilla" stitched across uniform back. Vinny hits lots of homers. Further imported muscle with No. 23, the one labeled "Vaughn." Greg belts even more.

This should be fun.

It's more than just spring giddy-up. Rothschild's hopes are flexed by the "Fourbaggers," the hammering heart of a refurbished lineup, where Castilla, Vaughn, Canseco and Fred McGriff are to be stacked.

Tampa Bay has a legitimate chance in 2000. Oh, not to overtake the Yankees. Get real. How about a serious cellar-escaping run in the deep, tough division they share with Boston, Baltimore, Toronto and New York?

So this is what $60-million looks like.

"I got tired of going home after games, feeling lousy because we lost," said D-Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli. "It was too depressing. It was time to do ourselves a big favor."

Payroll has been juiced.

Expectations escalate accordingly. Winning 63 or 69 games, as the Rays did in seasons past, won't do. Not for $60-mil. Rothschild knows he must squeeze, say, 10 or 12 more victories from an upgraded cast.

Not out of reach: 81-81.

"I like it," the manager said of freshening demands. "You feel so much new enthusiasm and energy in the Tampa Bay area. I've been thinking a lot about batting orders, pitching rotations and all the little stuff that can help make a team better."

You, me, Uncle Joe and Aunt Babe can endlessly lollygag on the "big picture." Imagining how bang-bang-bang-bang it can be at Tropicana Field if McGriff, Canseco, Vaughn and Castilla stay healthy and productive.

Rothschild's calling is different. "It's my job to harp on small, daily details," he said. "I'm preparing just like 1998 and 1999. Trying to get the most from the players we have.

"What changes is when you step back and look at the whole mountain. It's maybe a nice view, but my work must center around each individual step that we must execute in order to effectively climb."

He's talking fundamentals.

"It's paying more attention to the journey rather than the end of the trip," Rothschild said, the Florida sun toasting his experienced face. "I don't think it will be any more nervous for me this season."

Second-guessing predictably will multiply. With a deeper, more recognizable lineup, Rothschild will hear great choruses of "help" from fans, media and insiders.

"It's an expected, appropriate part of baseball," No. 11 said. "It means our area is maturing as a major-league locale. It means people care. When you've played this game for a while, then coached it for a few seasons, finally becoming a manager, the second-guessing is absolutely expected."

So, are we ready?

Hey, Larry, why don't you use Quinton McCracken more in centerfield, instead of Gerald Williams? How can you bat Davey Martinez eighth instead of fifth, when Vaughn and Canseco strike out so often? Why not go with Rick White instead of Esteban Yan as your key middle reliever?

"It's amazing, some of the things I hear," Rothschild said. "Not just from fans and media. There are a lot of people living here who have loads of major-league experience as players, coaches, scouts or whatever. I pay attention. I never said I had all the answers."

It could get hairy.

Frankly, it already has.

Rothschild has relaxed his rule against facial hair. By coincidence (yeah, uh-huh), Larry's new tolerance for beards was announced the day Tampa Bay got Vaughn and his signature stubble from Cincinnati.

"It looks better on some guys than others," Naimoli assessed. About one-third of Tampa Bay's roster showed up with goatees, moustaches or other unshaven creations.

Martinez, a 14-year veteran, was most radical. Mega bushy. Resembling one of the Smith brothers of cough-drop fame. "I guess we've become," said Naimoli, "the House of David."

Vince had one for a while.

"My family went to Colorado for a ski vacation in December," he said. "I went out early the first day, without shaving. Next morning, I decided to skip the razor again. My beard grew for four days.

"We came home the day before our Devil Rays staff Christmas party. I was going to show up with my growth and stun everybody. I lost my courage and shaved."

Don't expect No. 23 to copy.

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