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By DARRELL FRY
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- They came to the Trop carrying all the usual things. Miniature bats, gloves, pennants and, we can only assume, a fair bit of skepticism.
They made this trek last year, some 40,000 of them, carrying optimism and hope along with their team memorabilia, but little of either was visible this time.
To say the atmosphere was different from opening night a year ago for the Rays is like saying the Chicago Bulls have been a different team without Michael Jordan. The hoopla of the Hit Show was gone even though this team has almost the same potential for power. There was no looking ahead to the post-season. No dreams of an 80-win season.
This is a team that almost no one is talking about. A team that begins this season about as anonymous as an expansion team.
Maybe it's just as well. Maybe, just maybe, it's a good thing nobody is loving this team. Expectations are great to have, but sometimes they can do more harm than good.
I mean, I don't want to name names, but I know another local professional team (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) that didn't perform up to snuff when everyone was so sure it would.
Frankly, the Rays don't need people to believe in them. They need to believe in themselves. They need to believe in the value of substance over anything associated with style. That you don't need some catchy nickname or promotional campaign to win ballgames.
The Rays need to believe it themselves because apparently hardly anyone else is going to do it for them. Not the fans. Sure, the Rays drew 41,546 on Tuesday, but if this team goes into a slide, that number will quickly be cut in half.
Television isn't going to help, either. Do you know how many ESPN appearances the Rays have this season? Try zip. Fox has them on just once, and you're kidding yourself if you think that the Yankees being the opponent has nothing to do with it.
No, it's got to come from within, just as it did Tuesday night when the Rays plucked the Blue Jays clean 8-1.
"It started in spring training with our attitude," designated hitter Steve Cox said. "It's just knowing that we can't do what we did last year again. I think this is going to be a different kind of year for us."
The Rays have the most undistinguished pitching staff in the big leagues, but darn if that Albie Lopez didn't look sharp. He had command of everything he threw. He kept a dangerously powerful Toronto team completely off-balance with a vexing combination of off-speed pitches.
He stayed ahead of his hitters, worked the corners well and generally gave the Blue Jays nothing solid to hit.
Hey, if the Rays can get consistent pitching like that from their starters, who cares if the bullpen is a little soft?
And you want to talk about offense? The Rays piled on six runs in the first five innings and tagged the Blue Jays for seven extra-base hits. You don't have to call that a Hit Show, but that's what it was.
This was a team that looked relaxed, that looked unburdened by anything except its own expectations. This was a team that played within itself, relying on its strengths and carefully disguising its weaknesses.
Lopez was so languid coming off the mound after striking out Tony Batista to end the top of the eighth that he gave an extended wave to the crowd before ducking into the dugout.
You say you don't believe in the Rays? Well, that's just fine with them. Doubt them all you want, and they just may keep playing like they did Tuesday.
"We need to get off to a good start," manager Larry Rothschild said. "But that doesn't mean if we don't, it's an impossible situation, because it won't be."
The test, of course, will be if the Rays can come up with a season of Tuesday nights. If the rest of the rotation can throw with the wizardry and control Lopez flashed out of the gate. If the meat of the lineup -- Greg Vaughn, Fred McGriff, Ben Grieve and Vinny Castilla -- can beat up on pitchers night after night. If the untested bullpen cannot unravel. And if they can all stay healthy.
Watch them and see if they can pull it off. Watch them against the good teams like the Yankees and Red Sox and A's. Watch their eyes for signs of quiet confidence. Maybe they'll be the same old Rays, and maybe they won't be.
But whatever you do, for heaven's sake, please don't start believing in them.
WHERE: Tropicana Field.
fRADIO: 970 WFLA-AM; 760 WLCC-AM (Spanish).
TICKETS: (727) 898-RAYS; (813) 282-RAYS.
TONIGHT'S PROMOTIONS: Web site Wednesday at devilray.com. Print a coupon from the Web site and it's good for half off a lower reserve ticket.
Paul Wilson -- Pitched seven scoreless innings to beat the Blue Jays on Sept. 25 for his first major-league victory in 1,465 days.
Joey Hamilton -- Missed most of last season recovering from shoulder surgery. He is 0-2 in his career against the Rays.