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Flaherty has unique perspective on Rays

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- From where John Flaherty sits, he can see the whole field.

Catcher's vista.

Our hunger to know how the Rays are really doing, wondering about Tampa Bay chances as baseball is limbering for '01, knowing his old-pro feel for team mentality, Flash's locker is a worthy listening post.

"It's so different from last spring, when 'Hit Show' hype had expectations going out of control," Flaherty said. "Predictions coming from almost everywhere about how many games we'd win and how many homers would be hit."

Manufactured mania.

"It became unrealistic, as we tried to skip a couple of steps in our long-range plan, followed by especially lousy luck with injuries, led to a summer that wasn't too satisfying," said the New Yorker who, along with first baseman Fred McGriff, has been a unique constant in manager Larry Rothschild's lineup for all three Rays season.

So, differs how, Flash?

"Last year, Larry kept saying, 'Let's not get caught up in the talk.' But we were affected, even if we tried to not be," Flaherty observed.

Jose Canseco had a painful back. Vinny Castilla was a power failure. "Hit Show" bombed in unintended ways. Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman, the 1-2 starting pitchers, went lame and won zero games.

"I learned my lesson," admitted the fellow they call Flash, who cracked the majors with Boston nine years ago. "We can't get ahead of ourselves. Don't try to cheat the system.

"Just build day by day. Realistically. Now, it's February again, and we're seeing many talented young faces, real proof that our farm system is producing.

"You don't hear playoff talk now, but there is belief among experienced players, even if a bit quiet, that the step-by-step growth is absolutely coming along, according to a plan that we somewhat abandoned in 2000. There is a smaller but better focus. I'm confident we will sneak up on some rivals."

Something was different, at age 31, with No. 6 of the Rays. I must've been staring. It finally hit me. Hair. Lots more of it. Flash hasn't quite made a buzz-to-beatnik transition, but his mane is now unquestionably more Andy Garcia and less Mike Ditka.

"Some say it makes me look younger," Flaherty reported, using a palm on each side to pull back his new do. "If that's so, I might let the hair grow to my knees."

Flash lives in Cheval, a Lutz enclave just north of Tampa. Most of his 41/2 months off, after Tampa Bay's season ended as October began, would be spent chasing and entertaining two energetic offspring, Kristen (3) and Brian (2).

But the fertile, ambitious baseball mind did keep up, feeling strong emotions at news of old teammates going and new prospects being engaged.

"Upon first hearing that (relief pitcher) Roberto Hernandez had been traded, having been the guy who caught him in so many tough ninth-inning situations," Flaherty said, "I thought how lucky we were to have Roberto for three seasons. I saw it as somebody we were really going to miss.

"Being a baseball closer demands a special mental approach. Roberto was exactly the same, whether he'd saved 10 games in a row or blown three of the last four. Whether the crowd was roaring with cheers or booing him. An impressive quality.

"But, in full assessment, I understood why the deal was made. We needed a 24-year-old left-handed hitter with the abilities of Ben Grieve. When I deeply studied his numbers, I became really excited."

Tampa Bay's lineup is improved, perhaps bordering on solid, especially if 23-year-old second baseman Brent Abernathy is as ready as he appears to make the jump from Triple-A Syracuse to American League East regular.

Without question, pitching is the runaway most important Rays element, if their first-ever winning record is to be within reach, if they're to draw bigger crowds, becoming more than the AL East doormat on which the Yankees, Red Sox and others wipe cleated feet.

Twelve months ago, Hernandez was the locked-in Rays closer with Rick White and Jim Mecir as dependable setup blokes. All are gone. Swapped.

Rothschild's bullpen is under reconstruction, but with intriguing tools. Esteban Yan has first dibs on Roberto's old role. A humming flurry of powerful young arms revs into a training camp competition that enriches Flaherty's hopes.

"Overall, it's an amazing evolution to see yesterday's touted minor-leaguers becoming today's legit big-league prospects," Flash said. "I wouldn't be surprised if (Toby) Hall, (Aubrey) Huff, Josh Hamilton and others show in the next few weeks that they are ready.

"Then, you see all the impressive pitching arms, even if some are still a bit raw. I'm seeing a lot of smoke. There are maybe nine young pitchers competing for five jobs on our staff.

"It really hurt last year when we lost Wilson and Guzzie to injuries. They're both coming back now. My gut feeling is that it is better, if either of them needs more healing, to miss the first month of the season and truly be really ready for the last four or five.

"If we're fortunate enough to begin April with Guzman and Albie Lopez as our 1-2 starters, with all the gifted young pitchers coming along, it could be real fun to be a Devil Rays catcher."

Flaherty breathed deep. Pulling back '01 hair. Remembering the traumas of '00. Working to keep expectations in daily harness.

But this honest, well-spoke jock knows, even with an absence of hype, there is an abundance of genuine, non-manufactured hope.

Spring, such a sweet time.

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