1998 Baseball Preview: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Definitely better than last year

During Spring training Vince Naimoli, managing general partner of the expansion Devil Rays, was haunting the clubhouse like Banquo's ghost. One hot, lazy morning he was doing a walkabout in the cramped clubhouse, rubbing elbows with his Tampa Bay nine while dressed to the nines in a black team jacket and a rep tie with the purplish splotches of the Devil Rays' logo. "Are you a patient man?" he was asked.

"I'm as patient as anyone else," Naimoli replied.

If that anyone is, say, Naimoli's friend George Steinbrenner, then much of general manager Chuck LaMar's good work might be wasted. LaMar, the respected player development man who was spirited from the Braves to build the Devil Rays, has issued a mission statement that can be reduced to, Win some now, win a whole lot more a little later. "We want to be here for a long, long time," LaMar says. "To be a championship organization that has the ability to stay at that level year in and year out. If we start to waver after two or three years, we're in trouble."

LaMar suggests five years is the proper perspective from which to judge an organization, though he concedes a reasonable level of professionalism and victories must come sooner if fans and ownership are to be placated. "If you put a team out there that does not have the earmark of a major league product," he says, "the fans will eat you alive."

The Devil Rays already resemble a big league club--if you get past the uniforms with the customized-van color scheme of black, yellow, purple, turquoise, blue and green that is supposed to represent the shimmering waters (not to mention the sand, sun and lush green landscape) of Tampa Bay but looks more like something Evel Knievel might don before jumping 12 school buses. There are familiar faces at the corners in Tampa residents Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff and some marquee pitchers in lefthander Wilson Alvarez and righthanded closer Roberto Hernandez. In a burst of spring optimism Hernandez suggested the Devil Rays could play better than .500.

"They're not drafting and signing players to be doormats," says Hernandez, who signed a four-year, $22.5 million contract. "You don't hear 'expansion' being used much around this clubhouse." (Indeed, the Devil Rays prefer to call themselves a "first-year team.") A premier, positive-thinking closer might seem extravagant for a team that will be lucky to have one or two save situations a week, but Tampa Bay easily can afford a few luxury items.

The Devil Rays became an instant big-market club after selling 23,000 season tickets--and about 2.3 million tickets overall--before opening the gates. They have leased all 65 luxury suites for five to 10 years, have a lucrative statewide cable TV package, have sold 97% of the signage at the stadium and have peddled so many ads for their game programs that Michener novels look as flimsy as Archie comics by comparison. Their payroll will be a relatively modest $27 million or thereabouts, but revenue could rank them as high as eighth among the 30 teams.

LaMar especially admires the expansion work of the 1977 Blue Jays and the Rays' National League forebears, Colorado and Florida. But unlike the Marlins, who cherry-picked such top pitchers as Kevin Brown and Al Leiter before their deconstruction, Tampa Bay plans to grow some of its own. The gem of the system is at least a year away: righthander Matt White, the Giants' 1996 first-round draft choice who became a free agent on a technicality. The rate of attrition is high and the science of scouting pitchers inexact, but the spiraling cost of free-agent pitching will prompt LaMar to stay in-house as much as possible.

The other, quirkier Devil Rays' philosophical decision was the hiring of a manager with no major league experience. Of the 10 candidates interviewed, only Hal McRae had managed in the bigs. Tampa Bay selected Larry Rothschild, Florida's pitching coach. "We wanted someone capable of managing in the majors right now," LaMar says, "but who would continue to improve and grow into the job as our own organization continues to grow."

Of course, growth takes patience, which, as we know, Naimoli has as much of as anyone. "I hope," the passionate owner says, "the fans' patience coincides with mine."

--M.F.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON TAKING CHARGE In a season of endless firsts, catcher John Flaherty auditions for the role of the Devil Rays' first field general. COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE [Wade Boggs]

 

 

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)