Early-rising Rays aim to upset AL East order

March 31, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

NOTHING LIKE starting our day with a Yankees loss. What a way to start the season.

No wonder they call Japan the Land of the Rising Sun. The sun rose in Toronto, Boston, Baltimore and Tampa Bay quite nicely yesterday. Probably a few other places, too.

If you got up early enough this morning and read the baseball standings before the Yankees got a chance to even the series, it's right there in black and white. Tampa Bay in first place. Yankees last.

Has parity come to the American League East?

Not a moment too soon, especially with yesterday's 5 a.m. first pitch from the Tokyo Dome.

What was that faraway look in the eyes of Jason Giambi and Reggie Jackson as the camera panned the bench? Did anyone tell the Yankees that jet lag is worse coming back?

By about 7:30 a.m. yesterday, Jose Cruz Jr. and Tino Martinez had done exactly what Lou Piniella knew the ex-Mariners could do. That's why Piniella brought them to the AL East's worst outpost, to rip a few homers off Mike Mussina and help in the campaign to deliver the Devil Rays from expansion oblivion.

What must Derek Jeter have been thinking?

We flew 7,000 miles to lose to those guys?

And though Orioles fans may have enjoyed the Yankees' discomfort, they must have felt less happy about the accompanying commentary on ESPN. Harold Reynolds predicted the Devil Rays will finish third in the East - ahead of the Blue Jays and Orioles.

Fifth place! The Orioles spend $123 million in free-agent contracts and all they get is a national sentiment tilting toward Sweet Lou and the Devil Rays. The Rays are the cute cult story of spring, trumping the obvious upgrades at key defensive and offensive spots for the Orioles and a pitching staff (Sidney Ponson, Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth, Matt Riley and Erik Bedard) that the front office promises is promising.

"I heard that. I've heard that every year since I was 7 playing stickball. There's no way we finish fifth. It's ridiculous," said Spiro Alafassos, Orioles executive director of communications.

God bless the baseball fans in this most competitive - or is that divisive? - division in all of baseball.

Only in hard-core, old-world baseball cities like Baltimore could predictions about whether Toronto, Baltimore or Tampa Bay will get the privilege of finishing third behind the Yankees and Red Sox bring fits of pique.

Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays.

Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Orioles.

Devil Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles.

Devil Rays, Orioles, Blue Jays.

Orioles, Blue Jays, Devil Rays.

Orioles, Devil Rays, Blue Jays.

How is anyone supposed to measure success or improvement if the order in the standings never changes?

The prospect of the Orioles finishing fourth again brings despair to Orioles fans. What about the possibility - slim, of course - that they finish fifth?

Optimism and skepticism ebb and flow. This only shows how much carry-over there is from last year's AL Championship Series. Every team in the division is better. The Orioles might have made the biggest talent jump, but is it enough to change anything? That's what we're waiting to see.

Red Sox fans in Fort Myers were already exuding signs of rabid anticipation a week into Grapefruit League play. When the Red Sox came to Fort Lauderdale, Orioles officials said they never had to scramble so hard to fulfill ticket requests.

No wonder baseball's first two season openers feature four of the AL East's five teams.

There's been a lot of provincialism and overwrought anxiety about why Major League Baseball sent the Yankees and Devil Rays to Japan for two games that count. It's not exactly as if the Yankees are beyond sacrificing a few hours of sleep to further promote their global brand - and if baseball reaps some residual benefits, who isn't that good for?

As for the exhausting trip being a competitive disadvantage, well, the Devil Rays are not going to win the division and, if the Yankees can't find a rhythm for a week or two, consider it another luxury tax against them.

Jeter and Alex Rodriguez don't let much get in their way. Mussina will find the travel a convenient excuse for getting roughed up.

Meanwhile, with the Yankees playing ambassador in the Far East, the spotlight falls on the Orioles, who were asked by the commissioner if they would mind moving Opening Day to Sunday night, so ESPN2 can broadcast it nationally.

Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez - alone on the big stage, with Pedro and the Red Sox.

"I think it says we are worthy of being on national TV. It gives you a certain sense of pride. As proud as Baltimoreans are about their baseball, it's nice to show it off, both for the fans and the organization," Alafassos said.

For one night, it's nice to be the center of the baseball universe. It's a blessing and curse to be in the AL East. That's our mantra.

After that, just root for Harold Reynolds to be wrong.

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