Ray of light for Tampa Bay

Changes at the top give team at the bottom reason for optimism

Gameday

Opening Day Preview

April 03, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Stuart Sternberg shook with activity, his frenetic hands acting as a visual aid to his machine-gun chatter.

He held court with reporters with his head on a swivel, watching and commenting on a meaningless spring training game while simultaneously proclaiming a new day dawning in the baseball wasteland known as Tampa Bay.

It's tough to keep up with Sternberg, 46, who made his millions as a Wall Street investor and took over as principal owner of the moribund Tampa Bay Devil Rays last October.

But the message he is relaying is simple: He's in charge now, so forget what you knew about this team.

The Devil Rays' new era officially starts on the field today, as they visit Camden Yards at 3:05 p.m. for the beginning of the baseball season. It's something Sternberg predicts will be palpable inside Tropicana Field next Monday, when the Rays host the Orioles in their home opener.

"I firmly believe that people will come out of our stadium on Opening Night and [during] that first week and I don't think there will be two people that'll say, `Same old Devil Rays,' " Sternberg said. "On the flip side of that, people are going to walk out and say, `Gee, they really treated you great.' "

Sternberg and his revamped staff are fighting baseball's most entrenched windmill. Since coming into the league in 1998, only once have the Devil Rays won 70 or more games and finished out of last place in the American League East. That was the magical 2004 season, when they finished fourth with a record of 70-91.

Yeah, it ain't easy wearing green.

"I tell people back on the West Coast that I play for the Devil Rays," outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "And they say, `Is that professional? Is that a big league team?' "

The stigma of being a Devil Ray finally may be wearing off, however, now that Sternberg has taken the reins from Vince Naimoli, the franchise's only managing general partner, whose tenure was marked by bizarre struggles on and off the field.

The organization is now led by young executives Matthew Silverman, the team president, and executive vice president Andrew Friedman, as well as veteran baseball man Gerry Hunsicker, who was named senior vice president and Friedman's assistant.

New leadership brought with it a new feeling, according to the players.

"It's night and day really, night and day," Rays first baseman Travis Lee said. "It is a whole different atmosphere. It starts all the way from ownership."

The day he took over, Sternberg announced that the team would no longer charge for game day parking. He also has lowered the average ticket price, instituted a policy to allow food to be brought into the stadium and committed $10 million to renovate Tropicana Field, baseball's version of a carpeted mausoleum.

In November, the new front office made its first bold move, dipping into the successful Los Angeles Angels organization to name Angels bench coach Joe Maddon the franchise's fourth manager.

The ever-optimistic Maddon, 52, swears he couldn't have been more excited to lead the Devil Rays.

"I see this as one of the most desirable places to start ..." said Maddon, a former minor league instructor and player development director who has 31 years in pro baseball. "When I see young talent, it is kind of exciting, and when you see this group right here, you see a real high ceiling. And you also see the fact that you are getting in on the bottom floor."

Perhaps it is just generic spring optimism, but the Devil Rays, to a man, are trumpeting hope. Much of it stems from last year's second-half performance.

After beginning the season with a 28-61 record (.315 winning percentage) the Devil Rays went 39-34 after the All-Star break. Paced by budding stars, such as outfielder Carl Crawford, Gomes and second baseman Jorge Cantu, Tampa Bay had the third-highest batting average in the majors in 2005, behind only the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

The Yankees, for one, have taken notice. Last year, for the first time in their history, the Devil Rays won the season series against New York, 11-8.

"They haven't been a doormat to us. They have kicked our [butt] really," New York third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. "That's the thing about baseball. They have played like a first-place team, and we have played like a middle-of-the-road team."

If the Devil Rays can't elevate themselves out of the AL East basement, two components will be blamed: pitching and money.

Only the Kansas City Royals had a worse team ERA last season than Tampa Bay's 5.39, a run higher than the league average. Left-hander Scott Kazmir, today's starter, is considered one of the game's best young pitchers. But the rest of the rotation is unheralded at best, and one scout recently called the bullpen "an absolute mess."

"All teams are looking for [pitching] and we are not unique in that. And we are going to be aggressive to get our hands on as much young pitching as we can," Friedman said. "We are going to have to go out the next year or two in the free-agent market and continue to supplement around our rotation and our staff."

The problem is, how much will they be able to spend? Sternberg promises a 10 to 20 percent increase in payroll in the near future. But that's not going to get the Rays anywhere near their four divisional rivals when it comes to money spent.

The Rays' estimated payroll for 2006 is $36.2 million, about half of what the Orioles will spend and roughly $11 million more than what New York's Rodriguez makes in one season.

Yet the Devil Rays say they aren't bothered by the financial disparity.

"The talent here is ridiculous, and a lot of time that beats experience. And that's what we are shooting for," catcher Toby Hall said.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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