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Despite three strikes, he's not out

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's tradition, when a baseball team flunks, the manager gets conked. Jack McKeon, Terry Francona, Buck Showalter and Gene Lamont have fresh scars from firings. George Steinbrenner mastered the concept, being the Yankee ripper who leads the majors in skipper beheadings.

Still, the Devil Rays, who have yet to finish any place but last, are keeping Larry Rothschild. With a 201-284 record, he arrived at Tropicana Field with a Monday frown, expecting dismissal. Having seen his managerial obituary afloat on the Internet. Larry would go home with a smile and a job.

Three strikes, but not out.

Chuck LaMar eschewed a historic M.O., opting not to be the typical baseball general manager who protects his own well-paid hide by making the manager a high-profile, jettisoned scapegoat.

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Okay, they're a tandem.

For better or worse.

If, 365 days from now, the Chuck/Larry brotherhood has created obvious improvement, like a winning season, the Rays should pop an icy Pepsi One and announce that both GM and manager will be reupped for 2002.

But, with a flip side ...

If next summer founders into Loser IV at the Trop, it should trigger ejections of LaMar and Rothschild. Chuck is also 201-284. When the GM was hired in 1995, D-Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli christened a five-year plan. Clock keeps ticking louder.

Naimoli didn't appear at the Trop news conference where LaMar announced the Rothschild non-firing. Vinny has gone publicly mum. Assuming a lower profile, it seems, than a Grand Canyon snail. It may not be the worst of ideas.

There is a major problem, off the field. A tougher challenge than Rothschild's chances in 2001 of finding health for expensive pitchers Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman and creating 80 to 90 wins.

Here's the quandary ...

How do the Rays sell a predominantely unconvinced, uncharmed, reluctant Tampa Bay citizenry that next season's Rays will be worth their time, money, attention and emotions?

"It'll be done with winning baseball," LaMar said. "No tricks. Just playing more solid, consistent, successful, entertaining baseball. When we do that, people will have a tough time buying seats at Tropicana Field."

Chuck says the Naimoli organization, despite "the honeymoon being over earlier than we expected," has stronger-than-ever convictions that "this is a great baseball market and that a winner will bring huge crowds and electricity to the dome."

Okay, guys, you have 2001.

My bet, before Monday, was that Rothschild would be gone and that Tampa native Lou Piniella would become D-Rays manager. Speculation is heavy that he'll kiss Seattle goodbye after the playoffs. A to-the-core Tampa Bay guy, with scads of kin around here, Piniella was interested in the Rays job if Rothschild was axed. But he's also Larry's buddy.

"It's been an uneasy visit," Piniella told me last week, just us two blokes gabbing as his M's played the Trop. "I really like Larry. I think he's a good manager. What can I say that won't come out looking wrong?"

That option perishes.

If I were marking Rothschild's report card for 2000, it would read "Incomplete." F is unfair. D is harsh. C is too high. But he's been like a chap playing five-card poker without ever being dealt more than three or four. There have been wars with fewer casualties.

I don't know if he'll become a solid winner. I don't know if Chuck knows. Or if Larry knows. I can neither amply validate nor massively torch Rothschild's methods, except to say that it's a 100-hour-a-week vocation for the former Florida Marlins pitching coach, with ample passion to find all the cogs and nudges that allow him to eventually get it right.

LaMar admits getting greedy in early 2000. Instead of patience, taking American League lumps while working to develop young players, the GM tried to force-feed the beast. Spending many millions of dollars, with Naimoli's okay, to try and speed the process with veterans Guzman, Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla.

"Roll the dice," the GM termed it. Pushing the Tampa Bay payroll past $60-million, which should get you at least 85 wins. Rays wound up with 69. On third baseman Castilla, the LaMar cubes came up snake eyes. Vinny was woeful. Also injured.

Vaughn also was hurt, but busted his tail to produce. Guzman, like rich but oft-lame pitcher Alvarez, spent the season on the rehab shelf. There's not a tarot flipper on earth who would predict bountiful 2001 bouncebacks for that gallery of underproducing millionaires.

So what do the D-Rays peddle on billboards, in print ads and on radio-TV? "Hit Show" was a colossal flop. Homer aggregate of Vaughn, Castilla, Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco was barely half the smashing expectations.

Maybe the Rays, in promos for next season, could promise a certain number of victories. Using a slogan like, "81 in '01 or We (that's Larry and Chuck) Quit!"

Don't hold your Bay breath.

Attendance has been unsatisfactory. Who can be certain that Tampa Bay is a legitimate, strong baseball community? Two years now at sub-20,000. Success asks that crowds average 30,000. Nothing short of a semi-contender has a chance to make it happen. So, for those billboards, maybe a twist on the old Al Davis demand: "Just Win, D-Rays!"

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