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McHale will open your eyes

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


He is the man in charge of tomorrow. But the best thing you can say about John McHale Jr. is this: Somehow, he sees through yesterday's eyes.

He sees promise.

He sees potential.

He sees hope.

At first glance, what else could be more important about John McHale Jr., visionary, than that? McHale sees us the way baseball used to see us, the way we used to see ourselves. He sees population and potential and room for growth. He sees a viable market that will find its way.

Tampa Bay took its first look at McHale, the Rays' new chief operating officer, on Tuesday. But more important than what we could see was what McHale could. He sees a very good baseball market. He sees success at baseball and business. Remember the kid in the movie who saw dead people? McHale sees live ones, and they're in line for tickets.

No one sees Tampa Bay that way anymore. Not even us. The Rays are in last place. No one goes to the games. The team can't pitch and can't hit and can't run and can't play defense. Much of the money is paid to players who don't play. The ownership has been in a snit. Any time anyone talks of contraction, the Rays are one of the first teams mentioned.

So who is this McHale guy, and does he have an optometrist? Who did the Rays hire? The guy with kaleidoscope eyes?

More to the point, you look to McHale. You ask him this:

John, are you nuts?

He laughs, shrugs. Yes, he reads the stories. Yes, he knows all the impressions of the Rays. Yes, he has heard every rumor you have. Of course he checked them out. Had he not been satisfied, of course he would have walked.

Then McHale turns to you, and he talks about the attendance in the area, and the tradition of baseball. He tells you how, when he was trying to get an expansion team for Denver, he thought there was no hope that market would be selected ahead of this one.

"I think this is an area with fabulous characteristics," McHale said. "If I couldn't see us in a pennant race here, or playing in the Series, I wouldn't be here."

Look, a new employee doesn't come in ripping. Of course McHale was going to talk nice about the Rays. What would you expect him to say? Somehow, however, this seemed like more than that. McHale seemed sincere.

That unto itself is a wonderful gift for this franchise. The Rays need someone who can make you nod along to things you have heard before, who can make you look at a team all over again and try to see it the way he does.

The Rays became better Tuesday. They became a more stable franchise, a more responsive franchise. The plan became more focused. The ownership is at peace -- for the moment. McHale is in charge.

"I'm running this team," McHale said. "I'm the one to blame."

Know this. McHale didn't pull up in a wagon and begin selling snake oil. He made a point to be blunt when talking about the future. Asked how long it would take the Rays to be competitive, he said it usually takes a team 7 to 10 years from inception. For those of you scoring at home, that means another three to six years of stomach- cramp-inducing baseball.

When McHale said it, you could almost hear Vince Naimoli, sitting nearby, swallow his tongue. Naimoli still says five years. Hey, doesn't everyone everywhere always promise five years? But McHale talks about credibility, and honesty, and it sounds like music. He talks of the team's role in the community, and it sounds like lyrics. He's either going to start a baseball turnaround or a Broadway show. Either way, sponsors are going to love this guy.

"It's like a fresh start," said Naimoli, whose official title is now Still The Managing General Partner.

Give Naimoli credit for this: He acknowledges that a chief operating officer will work properly only if he is the chief one operating. In other words, it is up to Naimoli, a hands-on workaholic by nature, to stay in the background and allow McHale to run the day-to-day operation. If the Rays turn into one of those teams where the owner wants to do the chief operating officer's job, this will turn into just another mess in a series.

McHale doesn't see that happening. Of course he doesn't. He has this wonderful viewpoint, as if he is looking at Tampa Bay from a hilltop in, say, 1995. Remember how we thought of ourselves back then, back when we were convinced baseball hadn't seen anything like us?

That was before we laid eyes on Stocker and Castilla and Alvarez, though. That was before we witnessed the cobwebs on the turnstiles, before we saw the manager and general manager and owners strung up and turned into pinatas. Our eyes are sore from all the eyesores.

Through the eyes of McHale, however, it is as if those things never happened. He looks and sees all things wonderful.

Soon, he will ask you to take a fresh look, too.

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