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McRae, LaMar roll up sleeves for rebuilding

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


Talking casually one day about the work ahead to make the Rays better, Hal McRae said, "We're doing a lot of things, and my job is to chip away at them. I've got to chip away. I never know where I'm going to start, but I know I've got to chip. And I've got to keep chipping."

Play time, it seems, is over.

For the players who said the manager was the problem, they have a new one. For those who claim they are off to slow starts, it's not so early anymore, with the one-quarter mark in the season coming up.

The "chipping" may become sand-blasting.

Shortstop Felix Martinez got too careless in the field and caught up in his offensive success and was taken out mid-game and benched the next day. Vinny Castilla ignored McRae's team-first concept, was benched and, given an overall lack of production, released two days later.

McRae is making it clear that he won't continue to tolerate poor efforts. "Mental mistakes have to be eliminated," he said.

McRae's moves, though, are limited to the players on the roster. General manager Chuck LaMar is working to change that. Financial ramifications aside, releasing Castilla was easy because they believe Aubrey Huff is ready to play in the majors.

Some other prospects may not be to that point, but expect LaMar to be proactive anyway.

Another release might be difficult with $15-million (Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman) of the $56-million payroll on the disabled list and $7.75-million (Castilla and Ken Hill) released, but the trade window is open.

Gerald Williams, who should have some market value, could be the next to go. The Rays would be tickled if a team, such as the Mets or Mariners, showed interest in Greg Vaughn. Eventually, the Rays might approach Fred McGriff about waving his no-trade clause, opening a spot for Steve Cox. John Flaherty could be moved to make room for Toby Hall. And there will be no lack of interest in Albie Lopez, who may be the gem of the July trade market.

"Are we exploring ways to make this club younger? Absolutely," LaMar said. "No question."

LABOR PAINS: It was right there last week in USA Today, the official newspaper of the commissioner's office: Eliminate the Devil Rays, esteemed columnist Hal Bodley wrote. "Put them out of their misery."

To further this barely veiled threat, there was the obligatory quote from commissioner Bud Selig: "Anybody who thinks this is just a bargaining chip is wrong."

Welcome to baseball's latest labor war, where the Rays are pawns -- willing or unwilling -- in the prenegotiation babble.

Selig is tossing about the idea of contraction, proposing that eliminating two or four teams would solve the game's economic woes. While most logical observers see it for what it is, a negotiating tactic to scare the players' union into thinking it might lose 50 or 100 major-league jobs, Selig is launching a media campaign to insist he really, really means it.

Why the Rays?

Well, Bodley wrote, they "are in a state of chaos." The ownership dispute "has caused managing general partner Vince Naimoli to move aside" for a chief operating officer and with the team for sale and attendance declining "the outlook isn't good."

Further, Bodley wrote that "major-league baseball in Florida was a mistake" and that "putting the team in St. Petersburg was the biggest mistake."

So the solution is to eliminate the team? (And what of the hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits that would follow?)

The same team Selig praised after last month's announcement of Naimoli's supposed promotion to chairman, saying he was "pleased with these moves to strengthen the Tampa Bay franchise for the benefit of the club and the community" and that he looked forward "to much more" of Naimoli's work?

That team?

ON THE OTHER HAND: In a CNNSI.com poll last week, the Rays and Expos were the runaway winners among more than 3,000 respondents on which teams should be eliminated.

JOB MARKET: Despite a stall in talks related to the restructuring of the ownership group and financial guarantees if there are changes, Detroit's John McHale Jr. may still end up as the chief operating officer. But the deal will have to be made soon since it seems unlikely the discussions, which have created uncomfortable situations around both team offices, could extend past this week. ... The Dodgers may be interested in former manager Larry Rothschild as a pitching consultant.

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