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Getting to next level: Only winning will do

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Pitchers are trying to improve their control and hitters are smoothing out their swings. But there's something else at work in Devil Rays camp.

The Rays need to learn how to win. Not just the physical skills involved in getting a hit or throwing a strike, but the innate ability to do it when it matters most. Last season, the Rays were in most of their games. They were competitive. But they still lost 99 times.

That's not good enough, and manager Larry Rothschild told the players so at the start of spring training.

"Being competitive is great and all that," Rothschild said. "But if you want to have fun at this level, the only way to do it is that three-letter word -- W-I-N. That's the bottom line. You have to win. "Being competitive' makes it sound like it's okay if you get close and don't win. That's one of the issues we need to do away with."

The Rays lost 43 games last season by one or two runs. They lost 34 when they had the tying run at the plate in the last inning. They lost 10 games in extra innings. They lost five games when they were one out from a win.

"It needs to be about winning," SS Kevin Stocker said. "Maybe too much emphasis was put on just being competitive last year. We were competitive all right, but we still lost in the eighth and ninth innings, so it didn't matter. It's about winning at this level."

Winning spring games can help set a positive tone, and Rothschild says he'll do what he can -- short of putting a player in a harmful situation -- to post a winning exhibition record.

But the real change must come internally. The players have to want it, have to will it to happen.

Roberto Hernandez says he sees some promising signs. "A lot of guys are dedicated to this second year," he said. "There's more fire and more hunger, and that's called pride.

"The next step is to improve the won-lost record and build an attitude. We've got to have an attitude when we go on the field, an attitude that's somewhere between confidence and cockiness. It's something that teams like the Yankees exuded last year."

The Yankees. The ones who won 114 games and the World Series last year. Those Yankees.

NEW BOSSES: The Rays could be expanding their ownership group. Managing general partner Vince Naimoli said they will consider selling additional equity shares. "We've been approached by probably a dozen people who want to make an investment," Naimoli said. "We told them if they want to buy equity, we'll entertain it sometime this month." Naimoli said the team does not need the cash infusion -- "That's not it at all" -- but would use the money to reduce some of its debt. A group including actor Bill Murray and sales/marketing VP Mike Veeck is one of the potential investors. ... Bill Griffin, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges stemming from illegal campaign contributions and was sentenced to federal prison, remains a member of the ownership group.

MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE: There has been a lot of talk that Fred McGriff had a bad 1998 season, when he posted career lows in home runs (19) and RBI (81). But McGriff believes the criticism is unfair. "I spoiled a lot of people so I have an average year and then it's "What's wrong?' A lot of guys would be glad to have the numbers I had last year," McGriff said. "I've got to be Superman. It's the price you pay. I brought it on myself and I have to deal with it."

NAME GAME: Saturday's dedication ceremonies at Florida Power Park, Home of Al Lang Field, included the unveiling of a permanent display honoring Lang, the former St. Petersburg mayor who is considered the father of spring training. "We want to make sure the history of baseball and his significance is not lost," Florida Power president Joe Richardson said.

FIRST OPTION: Bubba Trammell is getting some extra work at first base, which could make him more versatile and allow the Rays more ways to get him in the lineup. "I'll do anything; you know me," Trammell said. "I just want to get to hit. I know I can do some damage."

CROWD CONTROL: The Rays averaged 4,926 for 13 games at Al Lang Field last spring, and Naimoli hopes they do better. "I would think so, especially with the improvements we've made and greater awareness," he said.

HOO-RAYS: The Rays opened a ticket and merchandise kiosk at the new Citrus Park Town Center in Tampa, their third such outlet in Hillsborough County. ... Greg Riddoch is recovering from his ruptured Achilles' tendon, but Orlando Gomez will handle some of the third-base coaching duties during the early exhibition games.

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