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Rumors thrust team into contraction mix

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 26, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- As long as the Rays keep losing, there will be questions about the ability of the players and the decisionmakers. And until they get straightened out off the field, there will be concerns about the viability of the franchise.

Such is life at the bottom of the standings and attendance charts.

Baseball's spinmeisters and rumormongers apparently have returned from their summers in the Hamptons. Pity those among us who only know what we read and hear.

Just when it seemed the logical and clear-thinking minority had raised enough legitimate questions to quash talk of contraction, a second wave of trial balloons has been released. Just in time -- imagine that -- for the upcoming labor contract negotiations.

Suddenly, there's renewed talk the Marlins and Expos -- who coincidentally have both been trying for years to get new stadiums -- are atop the "hit list." There were reports, based on unnamed sources, saying baseball would prefer to pay John Henry $250-million to fold the Marlins than explore a relocation.

And -- just in case anyone around here was actually enjoying the rejuvenated Rays' play on the field -- bizarre speculation that MLB could eliminate the Rays and then move the Expos here.

And just how do you say, "Huh?" in French?

These ideas, some hush-hush talkers in baseball HQ insist, have been discussed. In these troubled times, they probably have. Along with a few hundred other scenarios that never leave the room.

Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli labeled those reports "a work of fiction," a "creation" totally without credibility. (A top Expos official was equally dismissive.)

Naimoli disputes talk that MLB has prepared 2002 schedules that don't include the Rays, and said there is no reason to think even if there was dramatic action that the Rays would be involved.

"What we have going for us are the demographics of the area," Naimoli said. "Our attendance may not be what we or the fans or MLB would like to see, but it's a process of growth. ... The thing you can't change is that we have 3.8-million people in this area and it's growing like crazy. And that's greatly in our favor, aside from the lease and all that legal stuff."

John McHale Jr., the chief operating officer whose appointment was arranged by commissioner Bud Selig, said chances are "excellent" there would be baseball at the Trop next season. And, after a pause, he said, "I don't know of anything that would lead me to believe it would be anything but the Devil Rays."

Still, there may well be changes. There's no reason to think the problems between Naimoli and his partners have gone away, and the silent minority still may be working hard to oust him.

There is considerable speculation that investment banker JP Morgan was hired to set a price so Naimoli, or his allies, can buy out the partners. Or maybe the other way around. If the Marlins and Expos were folded, MLB officials would love for their owners to reinvest the money they just got in the Rays. Status quo for the Rays, one in-the-know person said, is not probable.

Naimoli, for what it's worth, said he isn't going anywhere: "I have no alternate plans right now." And he sticks by his July comments that his share of the team, and the supposedly omnipotent control that goes with it, is not for sale. "The record stands," he said.

So where does that leave Tampa Bay? With a labor war looming, a dysfunctional ownership group and disappointing attendance, right in the cross-fire of speculation.

MORE RUMORS: There also has been renewed national media speculation that general manager Chuck LaMar will be replaced by Indians GM John Hart after the season, even though McHale has been publicly supportive and complimentary of LaMar's work.

Plus, such a move would be expensive. LaMar is signed through 2004, with reported salaries of $560,000 this season, $600,000 in 2002, $700,000 in 2003 and $800,000 in 2004. And not to mention what Hart would want.

HOO-RAYS: In the first 25 games since Fred McGriff accepted the trade, the Cubs are 11-14. The Rays were 13-12. ... Albie Lopez is 3-0 with a 0.39 ERA in this last three starts for Arizona. ... If Pedro Martinez stays on schedule with his comeback, the Rays will face him Sept. 12 at the Trop and Sept. 18 at Fenway.

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