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It's never too early to take the field


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 1999

ST. PETERSBURG -- n the other side of the headlights, a new season was waiting. As the man behind the wheel moved toward the future, his mind was racing as fast as his automobile.

It was baseball's new day for his team. Actually, it was before the new day, still what most of us consider the night before. It was 5 a.m. when Larry Rothschild left his home and pointed his automobile toward the Howard Frankland Bridge, toward the spring training complex, toward a second season in charge of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

There was excitement in his belly, there were details in his head. Rothschild drove through the darkness, not hearing the radio, thinking instead of the things he wanted to say, things he wanted to do, things he wanted to see. He thought of players and situations and drills. Every now and then, a thought would strike him, and he would reach over with his right hand and fish for his pen, then write it down on a pad as he steered.

This, then, is how the second season begins. With a manager headed toward the baseball field faster than the sun could get there, so determined to be there early that he risked one of those nasty inking and driving incidents as he went.

They came back Thursday, Rothschild and his Devil Rays, and this time, the bands did not play. There wasn't a parade. All that happened was that a team went back to work, and that was enough.

On a team where much is the same, this is the difference to the Devil Rays. A year ago, every

moment a member of a Tampa Bay baseball team bent a blade of grass, someone was there to record the moment and to make a speech. Every day was a celebration, an end to all the frustration of all the years baseball lived somewhere else. More than anything else, last year felt like history.

This year, it felt like baseball.

"Absolutely," Rothschild said. "This year, we can work on things we need to do to get better instead of introducing ourselves to each other for the first 10 days."

When Rothschild slipped his No. 11 jersey over his head for the first time in months, the place was empty. Two hours later, his pitchers and catchers walked toward the field, and a hundred or so fans leaned over the fence. It looked nice. It looked normal.

There is something about the first day of spring training that makes poets out of baseball fans. For years, writers have waxed about the emerald fields and the silvery dew and clay so bright it has vitamin C. They build couplets as testament to the white birds and the blue sky and the smell of a new ball out of a box.

For Rothschild, it was different. For Rothschild, this was the first day of work. Hey, he lives here. He knows what color the grass is. He's seen the sky before.

He has seen a lot of his team before, too. No other team has 24 men of its 25-man roster returning. If there will be a difference in this team, it will be from within. And from Jose Canseco.

What will be different? This is spring training. In spring training, it is easy to believe everything will be different, that the veterans who faltered last year will be good again, that the young players will mature. In the spring, every pitcher is going to win 20 and every hitter is going to hit .300. Emily Dickinson once wrote that hope was the thing with feathers. She was wrong. Hope is the thing without rotator cuffs.

The truth, however, is this team is still a toddler, still stuck between the Boys of the Summer Before Last and the Boys of the Summer After Next. Yes, it should be better. No, the Yankees did not trade for Roger Clemens to stave off the Devil Rays.

As for Rothschild, this is his element. He wove through the four practice drills on a figure-eight Thursday, going from the mound where they were working on pitchouts to the one where they were covering first to the one where they were fielding grounders to the one where they were fielding bunts.

He knows what he has now. They know what he is, too. For Rothschild, that is the blessing of the second spring. Last year was so hard, a clubhouse full of players winding in from all over the Americas to try to mesh instantly. Rothschild didn't know who could bunt, who could hit and run. Heck, he didn't know who could throw batting practice, for goodness' sake.

"If you have one or two questions like that, it's a small thing," he said. "If you have multitudes, it's a big thing."

What other differences will we see? Maybe one in the manager. This year, he has talked of making moves quicker if a player is not performing. Good. Year 2 is early, and so is 5 a.m. Neither is too early to raise the bar.

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