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Devil Rays Trying a Powerful Antidote for Area’s Apathy

For the time being, at least, the pumped-up middle of the Tampa Bay batting order figures to concern opposing pitchers more than a stunning attendance fall-off in only the Devil Rays’ second season concerns baseball, which is expected to move the American League team to a new division in the National League next year.

In the meantime?

“It’s pick your poison,” Tampa Bay catcher John Flaherty said of the opposition’s task in trying to pitch around Greg Vaughn, Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco and Vinny Castilla, who figure to bat three through six and who will make the Devil Rays only the eighth team in major league history to begin a campaign with four players who have each hit 35 or more homers in a season.

The Devil Rays could also become the first AL team--not even the Murderers’ Row team of Ruth and Gehrig did it--to have four players hit 30 or more in a season, joining seven National League teams.

Amid the low-hanging catwalks of Tropicana Field, the fearsome foursome may resemble pinball wizards. They launched 144 homers and drove in 419 runs last year, when Canseco sat out much of the season because of back surgery.

“I think the middle of our lineup is comparable to any in baseball,” General Manager Chuck LaMar said, having made a December power play by signing left fielder Vaughn as a free agent and acquiring third baseman Castilla in a nine-player trade with the Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers. Canseco, the designated hitter, and McGriff, the first baseman, were already Tampa Bay property.

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Coupled with the subsequent signings of free-agent pitchers Steve Trachsel and Juan Guzman, and outfielder Gerald Williams, the additions of Vaughn and Castilla bounced Tampa Bay’s payroll from $37 million to about $62 million. Vaughn got a four-year, $34-million contract, and Castilla is owed $13 million over the next two years.

A team that won only 63 games in its first season and 69 last year will absorb the largest increase in baseball, although it will pay out only about $47 million because several players agreed to defer salary.

Owner Vince Naimoli insists that neither a whopping 25% attendance drop in only their second year--to 1.6 million--nor the success of the Arizona Diamondbacks in winning the National League West in their second year prompted the big investment.

“I simply got tired of driving home at night and feeling depressed after a loss,” Naimoli said. “This was all about winning. We had a five-year plan. Hopefully, we’ve accelerated it by a year or so.”

The hope, of course, is that an improved product will stimulate attendance, although there is no guarantee. The Devil Rays drew 42,000 to a two-day fan-fest at Tropicana in early March but are curiously mum regarding the sale of season tickets, which fell from 19,000 to 11,000 last year.

With the escalation in ticket prices and the ability to improve a team quickly through free agency, expansion franchises no longer enjoy a long-term honeymoon. The Diamondbacks even experienced an attendance drop while winning their division title.

They, however, were coming from a higher, revenue-rich plateau and continued to draw more than 3 million to their advertising-draped BankOne Ballpark, an attraction in itself.

Tropicana Field is no such curiosity.

It sat empty as a white elephant for several years while a series of teams, threatening to move, used it as a wedge to obtain new or improved facilities in their respective cities. Naimoli thought he had landed the San Francisco Giants for the-then Suncoast Dome in 1992, but NL owners rejected the transfer, unwilling to sacrifice the Bay Area.

When finally out of options and compelled to give the Tampa Bay- St. Petersburg complex a 1998 expansion team, owners swallowed the concerns that now fester regarding a market in which the sun and surf provide significant entertainment options.

Principal among the concerns is that Tropicana Field is simply a bad facility in the wrong place. St. Pete, compared to Tampa, has a limited attendance base composed primarily of older, transplanted residents on fixed incomes. And fans living in Clearwater and Tampa--while only 20 to 30 miles away--are not inclined to challenge rush-hour traffic crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge to watch the Devil Rays lose. Naimoli is also said to have offended fans, city officials, businesses and minority owners while grousing about city and constituent support.

Commissioner Bud Selig, illustrating baseball’s concern for the health of the franchise, traveled here in November to meet with the owner and city officials and came away saying what he was expected to say, that there was a better understanding between city and club regarding their mutual needs and priorities and he still believed in the market’s long-term viability.

The Devil Rays are expected to move from the AL East to a new South or Southeast Division in the NL next year. They will be in with the attractive Cincinnati Reds and neighboring Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves, which may help revitalize interest.

In the meantime, they now have the hammers to repair the foundation, or as Naimoli said of the four guys in the middle:

“It’s definitely easy to dream about what they might do.”

Easy because they carry a track record--and have something to prove:

* Castilla, for example, has hit 30 or more homers in five consecutive seasons, has driven in 100 or more runs in four, and will be trying to prove he can maintain that productivity away from Coors Field, where he batted .335 with 123 homers compared to .260 with 80 on the road.

* Canseco, who sat out more than a month last season, has hit 80 homers in the last two years, now has 431 for his career, has begun to think of Hank Aaron’s 755--"if I stay healthy there’s no reason I can’t hit 50 to 60 a year for the next four or five years"--and will be trying to prove that he can stay injury free in what will be his last year as designated hitter for an NL-bound team.

* Vaughn has 95 homers--only Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. have more--and 237 RBIs in the last two years, was selected the most valuable player of Cincinnati’s 96-victory season last year, and is acknowledged to be the clubhouse leader the Devil Rays lacked. He will be trying to prove that both the San Diego Padres, who traded him after his 50-home run season propelled them to the World Series, and Reds, who allowed him to leave as a free agent after his 45-homer season propelled them to within one win of the playoffs, made mistakes.

Said Vaughn, “I didn’t look at Cincinnati as a long-term thing and didn’t take it personally when they found the money to pay Griffey [after having said they couldn’t afford Vaughn]. Business is business. He’s the best player in the game. A lot of teams would have found the money to pay him.

“I did look at San Diego as a long-term thing and hoped it would be, but who do they have left from a championship team? Trevor Hoffman and Tony Gwynn and maybe a couple other guys. The Padres said they couldn’t afford me, but they never made an offer, never knew what I would take. Don’t speculate. Tell people the truth.”

The Devil Rays’ truth is that despite that buffed-up middle, despite Canseco’s contention that his restocked team is capable of winning 100-plus games, their success hinges on what the top and bottom of the batting order do, and the need for comeback seasons by Trachsel (8-18 last year), Guzman (6-9 with two teams) and Wilson Alvarez, who has been a 15-23 bust in the first two years of his five-year, $35-million contract.

Can the fearsome foursome deliver enough of that take-your-pick-poison to provide an antidote for the starting pitching?

How many in Tampa-St. Pete really care?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Power Surge

A look at the 1999 production of Tampa Bay’s 3-6 hitters in 2000:

*--*

Player G HR RBIs R Jose Canseco 113 34 95 75 Vinny Castilla 158 33 102 83 Fred McGriff 144 32 104 75 Greg Vaughn 153 45 118 104

*--*


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