Devil Rays find no time to lose Even in tough East, expectations stacked up like dollar bills

March 03, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Expansion isn't about delayed gratification anymore. The fans aren't willing to wait 12 years to get to the playoffs, and, for that matter, neither are the multimillionaires who paid all that money to join the major leagues.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli hopes he can show enough patience to build a strong, competitive franchise, but he freely admits that in the I-want-it-now world of sports in the 1990s, the bar has been raised to a level that requires something more than good intentions and a great organizational philosophy. The quick success of the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies changed the definition of an expansion team.

"Absolutely," Naimoli said, "and it's not just the Marlins and Rockies. I think it was also the [NFL] Panthers and Jaguars along with a lot of other examples."

The Rockies made the playoffs in their third year of existence. The Marlins won the World Series in their fifth season. The Devil Rays (and the Arizona Diamondbacks) have spent liberally to make sure they are competitive in their first season, but Naimoli and his front office will have to do a lot more than that to move to the top of the American League East.

"The word expansion really is a misnomer," said general manager Chuck Lamar. "It think it's better to call it a first-year organization. We lost the expansion label on Nov. 18 with all the things we did during and after the draft. It's much different than when Pat Gillick and the Toronto Blue Jays started their quest for a championship in 1977."

The fledgling Devil Rays franchise opened for business this spring with a lot of good intentions and very little chance of contention in baseball's deepest division. Each divisional opponent is an established franchise with solid tradition and a win-right-now philosophy, but the Devil Rays willingly joined the AL East and apparently welcome the chance to compete with four legitimate playoff contenders.

"It really is a plus," Lamar said. "We already had set our sights high, but it puts everything in focus for the organization and the fans. We'll get to see the true caliber of organization it takes to win a championship. We'll see that every night."

It may not always be a pretty sight. The Devil Rays have acquired and signed some top-name players, including power-hitting first baseman Fred McGriff and future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, but they will go into the season with a pitching staff made up largely of unproven prospects and expansion draftees. If they finish anywhere other than fifth, it will be a huge upset.

"We could have made it easier by being in a different division," said manager Larry Rothschild, "but we're going to see the first year what it's going to take. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best."

The Devil Rays originally were slotted in the American League West, which would have been a much softer draw, but it also would have been a travel nightmare. They were moved into the AL East when the divisions were realigned late last year.

It was a geographical no-brainer, but Naimoli pushed for the AL East for economic reasons. He figured that transplanted Northerners would flock to Tropicana Field to see their hometown teams, two of which -- the Yankees and Blue Jays -- have spring training sites in the area. So far, however, the ticket distribution has been fairly even for every visiting AL club.

The novelty factor probably is in play. Fans are just happy finally to have a team after two decades of being the area that major-league clubs used as a possible relocation site to leverage their communities for new stadium construction and lease concessions. But that attitude doesn't extend to the clubhouse.

There are enough star-quality veterans to give the team credibility, and the Devil Rays apparently are determined not to go down quietly in the team's first year.

"If you think you're going to lose, you should go home," said McGriff, who was acquired from the Atlanta Braves the day of the expansion draft. "Every time you step out there, you've got to believe that you've got a chance to win.

"We're going to be fine. We've got some quality guys who have played in the major leagues before. Wade, myself, Paul Sorrento, Kevin Stocker, Dave Martinez, Quinton McCracken. We've all played on winning teams. It helps to have guys from winning organizations guys who know how to win."

Nobody, however, is fooling himself into thinking that the Devil Rays are going to climb over four quality teams in their first year.

"As a player, you love challenges," McGriff said. "It was a challenge just getting to the big leagues. When I was traded to the Braves, the pressure was on me to play well. Now, the challenge here is to make this team into a winner. If I can help this team get to the playoffs and I can be standing here talking about that in three years, that would be great."

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