Rolling with changes, Rays' Saunders at home Facing O's before family, ex-Marlin in comfort zone

Sidelight

May 19, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Tony Saunders barely had wiped the champagne from his eyes when he was stung by a sudden turn of events. One of baseball's newest teams, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, made him the first player chosen in November's expansion draft, removing the left-hander from a world championship clubhouse and plopping him into unfamiliar territory.

One minute, you're hugging everyone in sight and getting sprayed with the bubbly. The next, you're shaking hands with players you've never seen and contemplating life at the bottom of the standings.

Then again, Saunders had been quick to adapt in the past. He switched high schools, pitching at Howard before moving in with his father and transferring to Glen Burnie for his senior year. He jumped from Double-A to the majors last season with the Florida Marlins, beat the Atlanta Braves three times and started Game lTC of the World Series in Cleveland. He could handle this, too -- once the news sank in.

"I was shocked. It was just phone call after phone call the whole evening. That first night was hectic," said Saunders, 24. "It really didn't hit me until I went down to spring training and put a different uniform on. That's when I went, 'Oh, wow, this is real now.' "

Saunders made his ninth start last night, helping the Devil Rays complete a four-game sweep of the Orioles at Camden Yards before a large turnout of family and friends.

He didn't get the decision in Tampa Bay's 6-3 victory, giving up two runs and four hits in 4 2/3 innings. He walked three, struck out four and hit two batters.

"It's a big thrill to pitch here, but I'm glad it's out of the way," Saunders said. "Unfortunately, things just started snowballing in the fifth inning. I left a few pitches up and they hit them. I've been scuffling a little lately."

Saunders has just one win in five decisions, but a respectable 3.81 ERA and none of the pressure that came last year with pitching for a contender.

"As a player, you can relax and just let your ability take over," said Saunders, who lives in Severn during the off-season with his wife, Joyce. "I'm a young player in a first-year organization. I'm trying to establish myself as well as they're trying to establish themselves."

His former team has a different plan. The Marlins began hacking off salaries nearly the moment Edgar Renteria's line drive fell into center field to win Game 7 of the World Series. Pennant clinching gave way to salary cutting, and a champion was stripped of its dignity.

"I feel sorry for the older guys," Saunders said. "They've been playing their whole careers to win a ring, and it finally happens and they never got an opportunity to win another one. That team was the best. If you look at the talent they had, it was unbelievable. It's frustrating, but there's nothing you can do about it.

"But if you look at the other half, a lot of my friends who were in the minor leagues and would never be in the big leagues right now are, because of the opportunity they were given."

Saunders wears his ring once in a while, his thoughts drifting back to the night the Marlins were kings. And to a season when an undrafted free agent made a name for himself.

"It gave me a good taste of what to play for," he said. "I was spoiled, winning in my first year. I didn't realize how hard you've really got to work. Somebody like Bobby Bonilla had been trying for years before it happened. He knows how hard it is to get there. I'm starting to see that a little bit this year. Winning that thing is tough."

It will be virtually impossible for the Devil Rays this year, as for the Marlins. But they have a commitment to winning no longer found in Miami, and a comfort zone in their clubhouse.

"We were all brought together. Nobody knew anybody, but everybody talks to everybody. There aren't certain cliques, where one group hangs out here and another hangs out over there," Saunders said.

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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