Piniella brings fire to floundering Rays

Lou Piniella's new team is 2-5, but a feisty spirit and two young outfielders could signal Tampa Bay's turnaround.

Originally Published: April 8, 2003
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

No one is getting too excited about the won-loss record -- a lowly 2-5 -- through the first seven games. It will take more than that to energize the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' fan base -- if such a thing indeed exists -- after five straight losing seasons since their inception.

But in the otherwise gray, sterile environs of Tropicana Field, there's a new dynamic in place for the 2003 season and the suggestion that maybe, just maybe, things are going to get better. Certainly not overnight and probably not even this season. But eventually.

Lou Piniella
Subdued Lou? Piniella still exudes plenty of intensity in Tampa Bay.

Hope.

It's there in the outfield, where two 21-year-old outfielders, Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford -- athletic, raw, with exactly the proper amount of confidence and humility.

It's in the bullpen, where young power arms such as Jesus Colome, Jorge Sosa and Seth McClung represent the foundation of a pitching staff.

And it's in the dugout, arms crossed, jaw thrust forward, where Lou Piniella is trying to change direction for a franchise that seemed to sail off course almost from the beginning.

For sure, it was there on Opening Night when the Devil Rays stunned the Red Sox with a five-run rally, capped by Crawford's three-run walkoff homer in what undoubtedly now stands as the franchise's high water mark.

Until then, team officials agree, the most memorable moment was Wade Boggs collecting his 3,000th hit. But while Boggs was a Tampa native, the vast majority of his hits had come as a member of the Red Sox and New York Yankees. Before long, Boggs was just one more retiree in St. Petersburg.

But the win was different.

``This,'' said Piniella, smoking a victory cigar in his office after the game, ``was fun.''

The rest of the first week wasn't so upbeat. What followed were three more losses to the Red Sox, and two more in three tries against the Yankees, a sobering reminder of how much work still needs to be done and how challenging the Devil Rays' schedule can be. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, the Rays must play almost a quarter of their games against the Red Sox -- whose payroll is five times greater -- and the Yankees -- whose payroll dwarfs theirs by eight times.

In fact, 13 of their first 16 games this year are against the Sox or Yankees, representing an early wakeup call. But the Rays have shown flashes. A night after storming back in the ninth inning against the Red Sox, they rebounded again and sent the Sox to 16 innings before succumbing.

Last Saturday, they wiped out a three-run cushion by the Yankees and registered another stirring comeback win in their last at-bat.

But Piniella doesn't have his sights set on the division's powerhouses. Not yet, anyway.

He's more interested in measuring progress his own way.

I think we could win 70 games. That wouldn't be asking too much, would it?
Lou Piniella

``I think we could win 70 games,'' he said recently. ``That wouldn't be asking too much, would it?''

There's no hint of irony in his voice. Piniella is being sincere. But it's an odd question coming from someone who, just three seasons ago, was directing the Seattle Mariners to a 116-win season.

These, of course, are not the Seattle Mariners. Not even close. There's no equivalent to Randy Johnson here. Joe Kennedy is Piniella's No. 1 starter. Nor is there an Alex Rodriguez. Instead, New York Mets castoff Rey Ordonez is playing shortstop with the Mets paying more of his salary than the Rays. And there's no Ken Griffey Jr. either, though occasionally Baldelli provides a reasonable facsimile of him in center.

Piniella didn't return to the Tampa area for the Devil Rays. He returned for his family, whom he missed too much in the Pacific Northwest. But if the Rays are going to escape from baseball oblivion, Piniella is their ticket out. He taught the Mariners how to win, and in time, he believes he can do the same with the Devil Rays.

First, there are some old habits to rid.

Piniella was aghast during spring training to discover how easily the Rays accepted failure. Knowing he couldn't produce different results right away, he took aim at changing the culture.

``This is an organization used to losing baseball games,'' Piniella said. ``We've to change that. We've got to be patient. But we've also got to start somewhere. I haven't seen anyone get upset -- except for me and the coaches.

``I have expectations for this team. I really do. You get paid to play hard. But about playing hard with a purpose? There's a lot of work to be done. It's like there's an acceptance: `We're the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; we're supposed to lose.' ''

To address the attitude, Piniella held individual meetings with players letting them know that things had changed and they were each responsible for getting the franchise turned around.

If that didn't work, Piniella began getting their attention with some personnel moves. He farmed out third baseman Jared Sandberg, who played in 102 games last year. He had Greg Vaughn released, despite the little matter of $9.25 million being owed to him in the final year of a four-year, $34 million disastrous deal.

Not surprisingly, he went with kids. Early in camp, he casually announced that Baldelli would be his starting center fielder hoping that the news would relieve any unnecessary pressure on the former first-round pick.

He chose McClung for his bullpen, despite the fact the right-hander had never pitched above Double-A before.

``We're going to grow with the kids,'' Piniella said, ``so why not start now?'' But Piniella isn't foolish enough to have an entire roster of first- and second-year players. Needing some veterans to surround them, Piniella argued for -- and got -- waived players such as Al Martin, Terry Shumpert, and Damion Easley.

Martin had played for Piniella in Seattle and brings experience and character. Shumpert provides versatility (and a two-run pinch-hit homer on Opening Day, setting the stage for Crawford's game-winner). Easley pushed aside Brent Abernathy, whom the organization thought wasn't progressing enough at second base.

The losses will continue to pile up for a while. The novelty of Piniella's arrival may wear off in another month or two. But with Piniella, things will improve.

Or else.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE