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Naimoli ponders life in the other league

By

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Could the Devil Rays be headed to the National League?

Managing general partner Vince Naimoli believes strongly that restoring competitive balance is vital to the health of the game as well as the success of his team.

And he says one way to do that is to move some teams around, grouping them by regional rivalries as well as financial capacities. "Modest realignment is a key," Naimoli said.

While careful to not reveal too many specifics, Naimoli hinted at a plan based on regional rivalries that could land the Rays in a National League division with Atlanta, Florida and a relocated team (perhaps Montreal) in Charlotte.

Even before baseball expands to an optimum number of 32 teams, Naimoli foresees realignment into smaller divisions (of mostly four teams) and an expansion of the playoff field (from eight teams to 12, likely resulting in a reduction of regular season games from 162 to 154).

Such realignment undoubtedly would require some teams to shift leagues. That is a touchy subject with established clubs, but Naimoli quickly volunteers that the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks already had to forfeit their veto rights as part of the original league assignment.

"The most likely teams to be changed are us and Arizona, and perhaps a team that was relocated," he said.

Obviously the prospects of such a "Southeast" division are enticing, from the standpoint of fan interest, reduced travel costs and, assuming the Braves can't be good forever, the chance to win.

These moves could all happen quickly, he said, perhaps for next season, more likely for 2001.

Despite finishing 51 games behind the Yankees, Naimoli says he doesn't regret pushing to be in the AL East. "For the early years, I still think that's the best place to be," he said. "Particularly with a balanced schedule (where each AL team plays each other about the same amount of times). If we went to a really unbalanced schedule, it would be a different story."

But for the future, he believes change is good. "You've got to approach it from a lot of different ways, on a regional basis and on a monetary basis," Naimoli said. "There's not a lot of moves that have to be made to get more competitive balance."

SPLIT PERSONALITY: Wilson Alvarez is looking to rebound from his career-worst 6-14 season, and he hopes adding a split-finger pitch is the answer. Alvarez figures he hasn't thrown the splitter since high school but is willing to give it a try. "I have to see how it works," Alvarez said. "I hope it's a big help. I need to work in something. My changeup's not consistent and I need something to help my fastball."

STILL HURTING: Herbert Perry has a locker and a spot on the now 76-man spring roster, but he is not likely to make it spring training any time soon. Perry, the former UF star, is home in Mayo recovering from yet another surgery on his right knee, an arthroscopic procedure last November. "He's doing well," trainer Jamie Reed said. "He's at about 80 percent and getting better. I don't think he's going to come to camp until he's ready to go." Perry, 29, has played just seven major-league games over the past three seasons because of injuries.

DOG DAYS: Until last season, Fred McGriff didn't know what it was like to lose. McGriff had played 11 full seasons in the majors and never finished with a losing record. Then came last year's 63-99 debacle. "It definitely was tough," McGriff said. "You get spoiled. You go out and win a lot of games, you're having success, when you're winning everyone's having fun. When you're losing, guys are not jumping up and down. I think for everyone it was tough. Last year was very, um, interesting. I learned a lot."

MONEY MATTERS: The Rays likely will open with a payroll in the range of $34- to $36-million, but it could end up close to $40-million by the end of the season if enough players earn their incentive bonuses. "If it is $40(-million), no one will be unhappy because it means we got productivity," Naimoli said. . . . GM Chuck LaMar said it has been team policy not to negotiate contracts during the season. But with a number of veterans headed toward free agency and several young players eligible for arbitration, that could change. "Because we're still in the development stage, I could see certain cases where we might have to negotiate during the season," he said.

HOO-RAYS: Approximately 13,500 full-season tickets have been sold plus 3,100 20-game mini-plans. The Rays sold about 21,000 full-season tickets last year. . . . Sales and marketing VP Mike Veeck will join WDAE-1250 for a weekly radio show starting March 13. Off the Wall with Mike Veeck will air Saturdays from 10-11 a.m.

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