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Williams delivering on all levels

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 1, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Devil Rays got more than they bargained for when they signed Gerald Williams.

"We thought we were getting an outstanding defensive centerfielder, we loved his enthusiasm and the way he played the game, and we thought he'd hit 15-20 homers if he got a chance to play every day," general manager Chuck LaMar said.

Williams, it turns out, has been all that and more.

His defense has been better than advertised, his leadership invaluable and offensive production robust: a .294 batting average, 16 home runs (one shy of his personal best) and a career-high 71 RBI, including a team-record 27 in July.

Because he direly wanted the chance to play every day, the Rays were able to sign him at a relatively reasonable rate: $5.5-million for two years, with an option for 2002. When you consider all of his numbers, he might be one of the best free-agent signings of the off-season.

Already there have been a dozen highlight-film defensive plays. Most impressive of late have been his clutch performances at the plate.

"He's been unbelievable," catcher John Flaherty said. "I said to him the other day that when there's runners in scoring position, he's amazing. He'll have a bad swing during that at-bat, but you know he's going to end up having a good at-bat. It's ridiculous how good he's been.

"It's kind of an unorthodox game for a leadoff hitter; he's kind of aggressive and wild and all those things. But the bottom line is that he's getting the job done big time for us. And hopefully he'll start getting some recognition for what he's done. He's really been incredible for us."

HOMEBODIES: Between two two-week road trips, the Rays will stage their longest homestand in franchise history, a 13-game set that opens tonight against Cleveland. Baltimore, Minnesota and Chicago follow.

Naturally, the Rays are hoping their recent solid run -- five consecutive wins and seven of nine -- carries over. "Any time we're at home, it's important that we do whatever we can, and most importantly that's win games, and that will bring the fans out and get some people behind the team and start things in the right direction," manager Larry Rothschild said.

ROLLING RYAN: He may not be dominating, but Ryan Rupe has been winning, reeling off three straight against the Braves, Yankees and Royals. The pitching has been good, but just as important is the resurgent confidence. "He's shown the ability that he's getting close to coming back to where he was last year, confidence-wise and the whole thing," Rothschild said. "Thus stuff's been fine; it's just that he was overthrowing, the result of trying to do too much."

FIRED UP: The 7-5 road trip sounded good, but several veterans said it's not enough. "I would have to say we played well," Williams said. "But I think we can player better. In fact, I know we can play better."

WHITE OUT: Rick White already is a hit in New York. Derek Bell has nicknamed him Baby Boomer, in reference to his resemblance to David Wells, and the fans gave him a warm and vibrant welcome. "Truthfully, I didn't expect anything. I just expected it to be like any other day at the ballpark," White said after his winning debut. "Once I got out there, it wasn't. If it feels like this every time, I can imagine playing another 20 years. It makes you feel like a little kid again."

BUSY BODIES: There are a number of promotions throughout the homestand, capped by a Salute to the 100th Season of American League Baseball on Aug. 12. Ted Williams, Earl Weaver, Dom DiMaggio, Goose Gossage and Frank Howard are scheduled to be on hand, and the Rays and White Sox will wear old-style uniforms. Also, there will be floppy caps given away on Thursday, baseball cards on Friday, a poster on Saturday and a kids backpack on Sunday.

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