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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2001


If you are anything like the rest of us, I know your reaction to the glorious entrance of the Tampa Bay DeeRays unto the 2001 season.

Right about now, you are asking this: Which way, exactly, is it to the ticket window?

Followed by this: How many do you think they'll let me buy?

Yes sir, the DeeRays have charged into this season like the Light Brigade, only without as good a defense. They have declared fifth place to be their turf, and heaven forbid anyone try to take it from them. A half-dozen games in, and they have shown themselves to be a team that can't catch, can't pitch, barely hits and barely runs.

Oh, and they don't win much, either.

Maybe you noticed.

Already, the luster has worn off of a new season. Just one week has passed since opening day, and it never has been harder to give a flip about a franchise that seems not to give a flip about itself. One time through the pitching order and the only rotation that seems to count is that of manager Larry Rothschild, already spinning in the wind.

What have we seen so far? We have seen Ben Grieve look all wrong in right. We have seen Gerald Williams in a snit, and he didn't even have to pay for his seat. We have seen pitchers who would make a Kewpie doll want to grab a bat. We have seen the offense average almost 11 strikeouts a game. We have seen Pedro Martinez look like Pedro Martinez, and darned near everyone else, too. We have seen plodding baserunning and pitiful fielding and passive faces.

But the good news is there are 155 games to go! Wheeee.

Down deep, most of us figured this was going to be a homely season, but I don't think any of us expected it to be so ugly so early. This is awful stacked on horrible wrapped up in putrid. Outside, there are warts.

Forgive my impatience, but don't the Rays have someone in charge of preventing this kind of thing? Anyone?

Couldn't someone, for instance, tell the outfield was stocked with too many leftfielders with too many left feet? Couldn't anyone foresee this bullpen getting battered like chickens at a Shake 'N Bake convention? Was it only people outside the organization who saw this kind of disaster looming?

How do the fans feel good about this team now? How do they stay enthusiastic? How do they believe things will get better any time soon? (No, the correct answer is not "Wilson Alvarez.")

And the biggest question of all: Why on earth should they pay for the privilege?

You could not have come up with a better plan to chase away the fans, at least not without purchasing spiders. I don't know. How many fans do you figure show up for the next Rays home game? And why?

How long before it gets bloody? Does Rothschild survive April? Does general manager Chuck LaMar? Should they? Is there a way to begin impeachment proceedings against managing general partner Vince Naimoli? If you are a Rays fan, what else is left to discuss? The team never gave you a chance.

You know what's going to happen, don't you? Attendance will nose dive now. And in the end, all of this will be the fans' fault. The autopsy will say the DeeRays resorted to bad baseball because, well, they just weren't loved enough.

Around the country, that seems to be the spin. You've read the silliness over the past few weeks. How baseball attendance in Tampa Bay is "a joke." How placing a team here to begin with was "a mistake." We are a convenient target, after all, and lately, everyone from USA Today to Forbes has been skewering us. No one seems to think a dull team that lives in last place has anything to do with it.

It has all been turned around. Suddenly, it is not an awful franchise that has to prove itself to us, it is the other way around. Just like that, and it is not the town that deserves better, it is the team.

Well, baloney.

Look at this team. Look at it stumble around, treating each game as if it were an opportunity to show its shortcomings, and wonder why no one saw this coming. Look at fifth place. Look at an expansion team, again.

Then ask yourself this:

How many people ought to be coming out to see this team? Three-million a year? Two-million?

I don't know about you, but the 1.5-million gate from last year seems kind of generous when you see what's going on. How many tickets was Tampa Bay supposed to spot the Rays before they became decent? Ten-million? Fifteen-million? Are we a bad town for baseball? Maybe. All we can tell so far is that we're a bad town for bad baseball.

Why is this team so awful? Maybe because it spent so much last year for players who didn't help. Maybe it's because it has construction flaws. Maybe because it thought its younger players would be ripe by now.

For whatever reason, it's time the Rays took the training wheels off. They aren't a new team anymore. They're just a bad one.

As for the talk of contraction and relocation, maybe what they need is demotion. Ship the whole bunch to Double A for a couple of weeks and see what happens.

The thing is the Rays have a habit of making a lousy first impression. Remember that first opening night? The team lost by seven. Remember the second season, when smoke filled the Trop and the team lost again? Remember last year, when the Rays were 2-5 by this point, and the pumped-up payroll already was relegated to the disabled list. (Sorry, a well compensated disabled list just isn't the draw it used to be.) It's always been a hard team to believe in. Now, it's harder than ever. This season is awful young, but already it has turned awful old.

How good should the Rays be by now?

They should be better than this.

Everyone else is.

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