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Tampa Bay Devil Rays DEFINITELY BETTER THAN LAST YEAR

March 23, 1998
March 23, 1998

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March 23, 1998

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Tampa Bay Devil Rays DEFINITELY BETTER THAN LAST YEAR

TALENT CHALLENGED/AL EAST

This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue Original Layout

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]