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Out with the OLD, in with the NEW

Which was worse? Last season, or living with it during the winter? Rays veterans vow redemption in '99.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Daihanna Alvarez had seen enough. Her husband, Wilson, had been frustrated and depressed during his dismal first season with the Devil Rays, distracted to the point where he'd drive over the Sunshine Skyway on the way to their Sarasota home, then minutes later ask her if the bridge was coming up.

Late last October, Wilson was still suffering. Something had to be done, and Daihanna came up with an idea. Wilson took a baseball, wrote "1998" on one side and "6-14" on the other, a fitting epitaph to the first season of a five-year, $35-million contract.

He walked out to the lake behind their house and flipped the ball over his shoulder and -- yes, it made it -- into the water.

"There was no more 1998," Daihanna said. "It's gone."

Alvarez isn't the only Devil Ray who would like to forget last season. For many reasons, for no good reasons, for whatever reasons, nearly all of Tampa Bay's veteran players had wretched seasons.

Alvarez. John Flaherty. Roberto Hernandez. Dave Martinez. Fred McGriff. Paul Sorrento. Kevin Stocker.

Seven veterans, each with an impressive resume and a hefty paycheck. Together they accounted for more than $20-million of the team's $26-million payroll. Yet each turned in a performance that ranked among the least productive of their careers. For some, it was the worst.

Apparently it wasn't the water, and theories abound as to other potential causes. But this much is certain: Development of their young players aside, the Rays would have been better, perhaps significantly, if the veterans had just been average.

About the most positive statement the veterans can make about 1998 is that it's history. And the next best thing is that they get a chance to make amends.

"I just see it in guys' eyes around here," Flaherty said. "I've never seen Fred looking the way he's looking right now as far as the determination and all that stuff. Listening to Paul say, "Hey, bring it on. Go out and win a job. Earn playing time.' All that stuff. The way I look at it is that's the way big-league baseball is. You earn your playing time. "This year it seems like were putting pressure on ourselves to perform because of the way last year went, and I really like the way things feel right now."

What went wrong?

Manager Larry Rothschild says the biggest issues were the ones indigenous to expansion teams -- players didn't know each other, they weren't relaxed with one another, they didn't have the trust in one another needed to succeed

Now the atmosphere has changed dramatically. "It's such a different feeling," he said.

More important, he is confident the results will be better too. "Out of those seven, I think at least five are going to come back and have good years," he said. "Who they are, I don't know. I know in every case they all worked hard, so maybe all seven of them will."

The easy way out is to say they can't be worse, and there is some truth to that.

What exactly went wrong? It is arduous -- if not impossible -- to say. Myriad reasons have been kicked around -- with variable merit and credence.

There was the adjustment to a new team. And to a losing team. New roles for some players. New fat contracts for others. Higher expectations. Lower motivation. Age. For five, the benefits -- and distractions -- of playing at home.

There does seem to be a common thread. And, talking to the seven, it is not so much what they didn't do as what they were trying to get done.

"We sat and we talked about it and a lot of it came out, where we all tried to do too much," Martinez said. "We all wanted to do something. It was a new team, a whole new organization. We wanted to do more than we could.

"That's what I could see. In all the other years, it's no big deal. You do your thing and your numbers all pan out at the end of the year. This year was more like, "Oh man, I've got to do it.'

"I can remember playing games when there was a guy on first base and I felt like I had to knock this guy in. Instead of taking a walk, I was trying to hit a double."

Flaherty noticed the same thing. "I think maybe coming into this situation everybody probably wanted to accept more responsibility than maybe they had in the past," he said. "Being older guys on a first-year team, right away you walk in and either you lead or you try to do things you haven't done before."

Trying too hard

The situation manifested itself in different ways. Flaherty said he was so worried about coalescing with the pitching staff, he let his offensive game slip away. Alvarez never got comfortable, physically or mentally

Hernandez had a flaw in his footwork that affected his mechanics and wasn't able to solve it consistently. McGriff couldn't make the adjustments in his swing to correct bad balance. Stocker and Sorrento said they tried so hard to get out of slumps that things only kept getting worse.

Frustration levels rose. Confidence dropped. Performance suffered.

For Hernandez, it got to the point where "I didn't know which Hernandez was going to come out," he said. "I went from when I almost had 27 outs in a row to all of sudden where I couldn't throw a strike. It was just a little flaw in my mechanics. It's just that little doubt that gets implanted in your head can cause a lot of damage."

Stocker said the battle intensifies internally. "The fact that it was a new team and everything like that, I wanted to do so well and come out and have such a good season and a fresh start, I was pressing way too hard and trying to do things I wasn't capable of doing," he said. "I a hit a little funk where I wasn't hitting really well, and I kind of thought I buried myself by trying to change too many things at once rather than stay with what works."

The veterans dealt with their failures in different manners. Alvarez put it behind him. Sorrento, who has had a Pinellas County home for years, instead chose to spend the winter in Seattle. Flaherty immersed himself in a taxing fitness program.

Payback time

As a group, the players say they learned from the harrowing experience. They realized -- at least to a degree -- what was going on, and they said it bothered them

"I feel like I owe this team," Alvarez said. "I owe the people in the stands. I owe my family. I owe everybody around me a good season."

"Hopefully," Sorrento added, "I can show them I'm the player they signed that they thought they were getting last year. He didn't show up.

"Hopefully this year is different. I think when you have any kind of pride it eats at you, especially in a new environment where no one has really seen you play and no one knows how successful you've been. When you come in and you don't do the job and you're not successful, they're like, "Jeez, why'd we sign him.' So it was frustrating."

General manager Chuck LaMar probably spent more waking hours -- and sleepless nights -- than anyone trying to determine exactly what went wrong, though he too found there was no single cause. He says he is proud of the way the players handled it, especially the way they worked hard over the winter and came into camp ready. And he hopes neither he nor they have to search for such answers again.

"The bottom line is that there are no excuses at this level," LaMar said. "Were there reasons for these veterans struggling last year? Yes, and we're very much aware of those reasons and so are they. However, when a reason becomes an excuse, then it's a mistake. And there is no room for excuses."

There is, however, room for improvement.

"This team can do it," Alvarez said. "We can do it. We've done it before. If we all come back at the same time, man, we're going to be right there with New York."

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