Tampa Bay watch: beached ball

As Rays flounder on field and at gate, officials deny sands of time running out

July 31, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - And now, here are your Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The words echo through Tropicana Field, bouncing off empty seats and the heads of people who barely take notice. Soon, another first pitch will be thrown to begin another game inside a building with so many catwalks, wires and girders, it looks like the blueprints came from an erector set.

The paid attendance is announced at 10,566, which is 226 more than Monday's series opener against the Orioles. Minutes pass before foul balls are retrieved in the upper deck. The only wave occurs when another fan says goodbye before leaving early.

Picnic areas behind both bullpens are empty, making trash removal a lot easier. A remote-controlled blimp hovers overhead, posing no threat if it were to crash into the stands. There's a good chance it would hit open space.

Oh, the humanity.

Baseball doesn't flourish here, it only survives. Rumors of the Devil Rays' demise are premature - they've been a contraction candidate since the word passed commissioner Bud Selig's lips - but how much is exaggerated? Club officials deny reports, which intensified after the All-Star break, that the team is having trouble meeting payroll. It's true, however, that deferred payments arrived a week late to former players Steve Trachsel and Gerald Williams. The team blamed an administrative error. And if anyone knows errors, it's the Devil Rays.

"I'm not going to spend the rest of my life answering questions from the press about false rumors," managing general partner Vince Naimoli told the St. Petersburg Times. "We don't have a problem. We're fine cash-flow wise. Our partnership relationship is as good, if not better, than it's ever been. It's the same thing over and over again. I know our numbers. It's not true."

"Our financial picture is very solid," added John Higgins, senior vice president/general counsel, "and there should be no reason for concern."

Not unless they notice the product on the field, and the apathy in the stands.

The Devil Rays have the worst record in baseball at 35-70, and seem intent on keeping their streak alive of finishing in last place every year since coming into existence in 1998. They entered last night's game with the worst team ERA in the majors, and joined the Kansas City Royals at the bottom of the American League rankings for batting average.

With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers having opened training camp Monday, even more media attention has been directed elsewhere. Fans treat the Devil Rays like a necessary diversion until the college and NFL seasons begin. As for Tropicana Field ... at least it's air-conditioned.

A three-game series against the New York Yankees last weekend drew 86,692. What seems like a modest total on the surface - artificial, of course - becomes more impressive when considering that the six previous home games, against playoff contenders Seattle, Oakland and Boston, attracted 88,499. The team went into last night averaging 13,858 a game, or 4,251 fewer a game than any other AL team.

"It's kind of hard to criticize the fan support when we haven't done our job on the field yet, from the front office to the players," said catcher John Flaherty, 34, who has been with the team since its inception. "I think baseball can survive here. Right now we're taking a step backward. Hopefully, in the next couple years we'll be able to move forward. But the plan to get there has taken some detours."

Flaherty will be a free agent after this season. The Devil Rays offered him a contract extension shortly after the break, but only as a reserve behind Toby Hall.

A backup catcher in Tampa Bay? Sure it's tempting, but Flaherty politely declined, figuring there must be a better job out there somewhere.

At least this one still pays.

"The whole payroll thing has been rumored here a few times, but this is the first time it really got some national attention," he said. "I've said all along it's never been a problem, financially, from the players' standpoints.

"The checks have always been there. The direct deposit's always been there. It's never been an issue. Obviously we have a lot of other things we need to worry about besides our paychecks going through."

Like fielding a competitive team that beats up on more than just the Orioles.

The Devil Rays are turning to youth after the failed experiment of 2000, when they added veteran sluggers Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla to a lineup that already included Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco. Only Vaughn remains - nobody will take him - and Tampa Bay is paying $8.2 million this season and $8.6 million in 2003 to a player who's batting .163.

That's almost as absurd as the injury suffered this year by Tampa Bay's mascot, Raymond, a furry blue creature who was clotheslined by an apparently drunk fan as kids ran the bases during a post-game promotion. He missed a week.

Before returning to the field, Raymond had been listed as day-to-day - just like the team that employs him.

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