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For a night, Rays an open-and-shut case

By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG-- On the other hand, the grass looked nice.

No, really. It looked positively, well, green. Kermit green. I mean, cows would eat this stuff. Even Irish cows. Yes sir, when you talk about the home opener of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the first thing we'd all have to agree on was that it happened on a pasture positively pastoral.

Let's see. What else do you need to know about the Rays' opener?

Oh, yeah. This:

Splat.

If Opening Day is the very best in baseball, this was the worst possible way for a team to spend it. The Rays lost 14-5 in what could be described best as a homely opener. Not to say they never were in the game, but there for a while, it was in doubt they even would finish second. Any highlights should be accompanied by the sounds of falling melons hitting a sidewalk.

You could make a case this was the most disappointing day in the brief life of the franchise because, for the first time, there was reason to expect something more from it. "Look at us!" the Rays had screamed through an off-season of high-powered acquisitions. "Come check us out! See what we have to offer!"

And then, this. That's the thing about life. You increase expectations, and the disappointment factor soars right up along with them. This was supposed to be an unveiling of something baseball fans around here have never seen before, a special lineup making a grand opening statement. Instead, it went something like this:

Ouch.

Hey, if a team is going to lose like this, it should have the foresight to do so in game No. 97, when no one is paying attention. What a shame. The Rays have hungered so long for a crowd of more than 40,000, and once they got one, they let the Indians hit baseballs at it. A victory here, a flash of the power along the way, and it would have been a good argument that a fan should find his way back. Can you imagine the borderline fan in Tropicana on Friday night? Can you imagine him entering talking about the playoffs? What do you imagine he was saying as he left? "They increased payroll for that?"

Okay, okay. I know what you're thinking. It was just one game, blah, blah. These nights happen to everyone, yada, yada. What else can a player say? And, with 157 games to go, there is truth to it. But it also is true that such defeats happen a lot more to the Royals and Twins than they do to the Yankees and Braves. If each game is a step in the journey, the Rays fell on their nose with this one.

Coming into the game, Juan Guzman was supposed to be the counter-argument to those who have criticized the Rays' rotation. Instead, he lasted five outs and eight runs before he was headed to the disabled list. Credit him for being a gamer or blame him for not telling anyone his shoulder was sore; either way, he looked very much like Trent Dilfer opening against the Giants. Cleveland scored 10 times before the Rays came to bat for the second time.

"It's obviously disappointing," catcher John Flaherty said. "I would ask fans to be patient with us. Give us a chance. We're going to be an exciting team over the course of a season."

You know the most disappointing thing about Friday night's hello? It's that this team is going to be better, and it is going to win more games and, yes, Guzman is going to make it past the second inning. Given the clues of the home opener, that may be hard to believe. But trust me. Oh, it's a stretch to talk about a winning season, and it's silly to talk about the playoffs. But a good time at the park shouldn't be too much to ask.

It remains to be seen just how good this team will be. The players, and those who pay them, seem convinced this team will be in the chase. But has anyone seen anyone pick the Rays better than fourth in the American League East? And the doubt begins with the starting pitching.

If you want to know, general manager Chuck LaMar still believes. Oh, he's the first one to tell you the Rays are a work in progress. There still are holes to be filled. The Rays could use a No. 1 pitcher, a left-handed reliever, a No. 3 hitter.

On the other hand, LaMar will tell you this is the best starting rotation the Rays have had, and the best defense, and obviously the best offense. He has faith in the bullpen. He "absolutely" believes this team will win.

"We're a much better baseball team than we were last year," he said. "It's night and day."

Someday soon, perhaps we'll start to see it.

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