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Rays Tales: At the All-Star Break

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 8, 2001


Since their inception, the Rays have longed for the national attention bestowed upon the more established franchises. Finally, in the midst of a most miserable season, they are getting some publicity, but it's not anything to be proud of. Rather than having their virtues extolled, the Rays are being ridiculed, toasted and laughed at. And it's not just in the sports pages anymore. These Rays are soooo bad, they have become an even bigger target. Jay Leno picked on them in his monologue. Tank McNamara torched them in a recent cartoon. And now Blondie is piling on. Creators Dean Young, who lives locally, and Denis Lebrun feature the Rays in Monday's strip. We can't show you the whole thing, but you can get the idea from the first square.

Okay, so maybe it's our fault

There was a day toward the end of spring training, March 28 to be exact, when a certain Times baseball writer -- one who certainly knew better from his years covering the team and writing this column -- lamented how boring the spring had been, how there had been little excitement and even less news.

That's the kind of comment, of course, that does nothing but stir the baseball gods. That's because it is exactly the wrong thing to say, much like observing how quickly a game is going (usually said just before the first of seven mid-inning pitching changes) or how nice the weather is (the first claps of thunder are usually seconds away at that point).

The Rays promptly began 1-7, and that was just the start of trouble. The team has changed ownership structure, field manager and most of its players; has the second-lowest attendance in the league; and keeps showing up atop every expert's list of candidates for contraction.

Is he out there smiling?

Even in the occasional good times, Larry Rothschild rarely let you see him smile. But having almost been fired at the end of last season and having a contract that expired at the end of this season with no talk of an extension, Rothschild didn't have much margin for error. The team's 4-10 start and mounting problems in the clubhouse were the end for Rothschild, who was fired with a career 205-294 record. Bench coach Hal McRae, who had a winning record (286-277) managing the Royals for 3 1/2 seasons, took over. Here is a quick look at how they played for each manager:

(Under Rothschild,Under McRae)

W-L4-10,23-50

Pct..286,.315

BA.223,.261

R/PG3.21,4.08

ERA4.41,5.87

Errors18,55

Veni, vidi, vici

(G, AB,H, HR, RBI, .Avg

Rays, 24, 93, 20, 2, 9, .215

Astros, 45, 159, 44, 7, 28, .282

Three times the pain

The biggest surprise of the off-season was the three-way trade between the Rays, A's and Royals. But the bigger shock may be how poorly it has worked out for each team. A midseason look (through Friday):

Ben Grieve, Rays.243 Avg., 6 HRs, 34 RBI, 84 Ks

Johnny Damon, A's .231 Avg., 5 HRs, 33 RBI, 14 SB

Roberto Hernandez, K.C. 2-2, 4.21 ERA, 15-of-19 saves

It all went downhill

Bickering and disputes among the team's owners had gotten so bad there were mid April reports of secret meetings, hidden agendas and suddenly disappearing funds. The turmoil was headed toward critical mass, and a very messy coup, when a deal seemed to be struck.

Vince Naimoli, who labored relentlessly to bring the team here, announced April 27 he would relinquish his omnipotent title as managing general partner to become chairman, would turn over control of day-to-day operations to a new chief operating officer, would cut back on his time with the team to travel, ski and wear his Hawaiian shirt.

After a lengthy negotiation, the Rays hired well-respected John McHale Jr. as COO, and he promptly made it clear that he was in charge. But that wasn't the end of Naimoli. Not even close. Naimoli announced that day that because people for some reason mistakenly thought (hoped?) he was stepping aside, he was reassuming his title.

And the beatings go on ...

The Rays aren't just losing, they're doing so with creativity, with flair, with panache and with a sense of history. Consider:

They are on pace for 112 losses, which could threaten the AL record (117 by the 1916 Philadelphia A's) and gives them a shot to match the infamous 1962 Mets record of 120 losses.

Their 60 losses, with the chance for one today, are third-most in history at the All-Star break, trailing the 1962 Mets and Cubs.

With 343 runs scored and 544 allowed and a differential of -201, they are on pace to obliterate a long-standing record. The 1932 Red Sox hold the differential record of -349. The Rays also could be the fourth AL team in the past 50 years to be last in runs scored and runs allowed.

They are on, or close to, the pace to set records for fewest road wins, most wild pitches, most hit batters, most unearned runs allowed and fewest one-run games.

They said it (really)

"This is one of the happier days of my life." -- VINCE NAIMOLI, announcing April 27 he would step down as managing general partner to accept a role as chairman. Less than a month later, he reclaimed his title.

"It's pretty early to start jumping to conclusions about anything here, and that's been done enough." -- LARRY ROTHSCHILD, responding to what he said was negative media coverage. He was fired four days later.

"You can't blame anybody for not wanting to watch this. I wouldn't want to watch. Everybody says (we have) no fans. I wouldn't tell anybody to spend their hard-earned money to come watch this." -- GREG VAUGHN, after the Rays lost the third game of the season 11-0 to Toronto.

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