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Surgery lets Saunders throw 'free and easy'

By JOHN ROMANO, MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- His surgery was described as minor. Tony Saunders would beg to differ.

"For a pitcher," Saunders said, "any time they open up your arm, it's a major thing."

Having said that, Saunders showed up for the first day of spring training feeling better than ever.

The Sept. 30 surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow has the left-hander excited about the coming season.

"It's a big difference. It's like night and day," Saunders said. "Last year I had to change a few things in my mechanics because of the (pain) in my arm. Now I feel free and easy. I know it's early, but hopefully it'll stay this way."

Saunders said the elbow became an increasing distraction as the 1998 season wore on. His season ended a week early when his arm locked up after a start in Boston.

"It seems like he's feeling better. Just from the restriction of having the chip in there and getting that out," Rays manager Larry Rothschild said. "It's nice to see he has the flexibility back again."

LATE ARRIVING: Pitcher Albie Lopez and catcher Cesar Devarez were the only no-shows on the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers. Both were excused for personal reasons and are expected to arrive in time for today's workout.

For Devarez, the timing might be fortuitous. He tore cartilage in his left knee on the first day of spring in 1998 and missed the first two months at Triple-A Durham.

Right-hander Jason Johnson, who went 2-5 before being sidelined by a back injury, agreed to terms Thursday.

POWER NUMBER: Coach Frank Howard has given up his No. 33 for new Rays slugger Jose Canseco.

"He's making more money than I am," Howard said jokingly.

Howard, who has switched to No. 25, said equipment manager Carlos Ledezma called him in the off-season to ask about the possibility of letting Canseco wear No. 33.

"I was delighted to do it. He's been great for the game and he's going to be a big asset for our ballclub," Howard said. "Numbers are just numbers. They don't matter to me."

THE LATEST GEAR: The Devil Rays were sporting new caps on their first day of spring.

Major League Baseball has come up with a line of mesh caps that all teams will wear in the spring and during regular-season batting practice. In Tampa Bay's case, the caps have "Rays" written across the front in script.

THE BOSS SPEAKS: Looking ahead on the first day of spring training, managing general partner Vince Naimoli said the younger players on the roster will have the Devil Rays in contention within two years.

"You don't want to wish your life away, but 2001 and 2002 will be great years," Naimoli said. "This will be a good year, but those will be great years."

When asked about Arizona's big-spending, quick-fix approach, Naimoli didn't bite.

"We'll see. There are good examples of teams that have bought their way into contention and teams that have built through player development," he said. "History is a good teacher."

CATCHING ON: He was voted the International League's best defensive third baseman last season, but Scott McClain is sporting a catcher's mitt these days.

Rothschild approached McClain on the airplane home from New York after the final game of last season and asked if he would be willing to go to the fall instructional league to learn how to be a catcher.

"It can only help me. If it helps me make the team here or somewhere else, than it was a good move," McClain said. "A lot of teams need a third catcher and I'll have some sort of experience."

The idea was that McClain's value could increase if he were able to fill a role as a utility infielder as well as an emergency catcher for a team with only two catchers.

"Who knows what will develop," Rothschild said. "He's got the ability, it's just another way to get him playing time."

So how has McClain handled the role?

"So far so good," McClain said. "We'll see how my legs feel after a couple of days."

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