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This year, hope rings familiar

Today the Devil Rays open spring training with a new source of comfort: They've done it before.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 1999

ST. PETERSBURG -- The most telling difference between last year's spring training camp and this one will come when the Devil Rays players arrive at the clubhouse.

This time they'll know where the front door is.

The Devil Rays open their spring training camp this morning banking on it being more productive for a number of reasons, including that it's not the first one.

"The biggest difference is that it's our second camp," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "As an organization, as a front office, as a major-league staff working together, and for the players who are back, there's a comfort level of knowing where to go, what to do and what's expected of them as Tampa Bay Devil Rays."

Even more comforting, manager Larry Rothschild said, is the accompanying familiarity.

"We know the players and they know us," Rothschild said. "We have yards of tape to show them. I wasn't of the mind-set to start changing guys before I'd seen them play a major-league game. The adjustments that had to be made, we had to do on the run. Most of our players, we've seen them play for a full year. I know what their strengths are, I know what their weaknesses are and we know what we have to work on going into spring training.

"And they are familiar with each other, which I think is probably the biggest thing. To develop the trust in each other, you do that through a 162-game season, through the ups and downs. And we had our ups and downs last season."

The players expect a tangible difference. "We are a lot tighter group," outfielder/DH Paul Sorrento said. "We know what to expect of each other, and I think that's a big difference."

Said closer Roberto Hernandez: "There won't be a period of trying to get to know each other because we already know each other. The core of the coaching staff is the same, and the system is principally the same. It should go a lot smoother. Everything should be more precise and, hopefully, more concise. We can go out there, get our job done and go home."

At a glance, this camp seems similar to last year's. There will be 75 players, two more than in 1998, resulting again in daily schedules that resemble algebraic equations, eight days of split-squad workouts and a precious premium on playing time.

But the second camp will be different in a number of ways.

Because Rothschild and the coaches know more about the players, instruction will be more specific and tailored to individuals. Overall, there will be emphasis on improving on-base percentage and two-strike hitting.

The veterans, many of whom struggled mightily last season, won't have it as easy. LaMar and Rothschild insist few jobs are truly secure.

"As Larry has pointed out, last year our veteran players came in here and had jobs won because of what they did in the past, deservingly so, and the young players were going to serve an apprenticeship," LaMar said.

"Well, that was a year ago, and a lot of things have happened since then. A lot of our young players are on the verge of establishing themselves as major-league players, and quite a few of our veterans need to play better than what they did last year. I think we have lot of jobs that are open for competition." The pressure isn't only on the returning veterans. Though saying they are sticking to building with young players, the Rays brought in a number of second-tier veteran free agents to foster competition. The idea is that if a couple of veterans have something left, the Rays won't be forced to use youngsters who aren't ready.

The goal, LaMar said, is to keep quality players. Either way, the results could be surprising.

"It's not getting away from, quote, building with young players whatsoever, and it should not be portrayed or construed that way, but the media, I'm sure, will," LaMar said. "It's a case where we have to continue to improve as a major-league club and yet continue to build with quality players. That's where the competition will come."

Overall, the talent is better. "If everyone's healthy, and I know we have some question marks, there's no question in my mind we're taking the field the first day of spring training with a more talented group of players than we had last year," LaMar said. "And that's the way it should be."

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