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INSIDE BASEBALL

Hot Right off the Bat

by E. M. Swift

Posted: Wed April 29, 1998

 
Sports Illustrated It may be premature to light a victory cigar, but with nearly a month of play behind them, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have a nice early lead over the ghosts of baseball expansion. The '61 Washington Senators and the '69 Seattle Pilots? Eating dust. The '62 Houston Colt .45s and the '69 Expos? Sucking wind. The '62 Mets? Puh-leeze. They're bringing up the rear, just slightly behind the '98 Arizona Diamondbacks, the National League newcomers with the $30.8 million payroll, deluge of off-season hype and 7-18 record at week's end.

Meanwhile, the Devil Rays are huffin' and puffin' atop the Expansion League—not to be confused with the American League East, the division in which Tampa Bay actually plays—an imaginary conference in which the records of baseball's 14 expansion teams since '61 are compared on a regular basis by the St. Petersburg Times. The Devil Rays were so hot at the start of their first season that despite losing five of their last six games through Sunday, they still stood at 11-11. Their 11 wins in April is an expansion-club record, and they still had four games to play before May.

"With free agency, the expansion equation has changed," says Seattle manager Lou Piniella, who played on the '69 Royals, a team that holds another expansion record the Devil Rays have their eyes on: 28 days spent above .500. (As of Sunday they had been above .500 for 22 days.) "Tampa Bay signed a veteran starting pitcher [Wilson Alvarez], a proven closer [Roberto Hernandez], Wade Boggs and Paul Sorrento. They were able to trade for Kevin Stocker and Fred McGriff. They have some experience over there."

Enough experience to, just possibly, lead this team to expansion nirvana: an above-.500 finish for the season, something no first-year team in baseball—or for that matter, in the NBA, the NFL or the NHL—has accomplished. Piniella's '69 Royals, it should be noted, spent 152 days under .500 and finished the season 69-93. Which is why Devil Rays rookie manager Larry Rothschild, who last year was the pitching coach for the world champion Florida Marlins, is keeping those victory stogies under wraps. "There's nothing saying we can't play 162 games the way we played the first 19," he says of the team's 11-8 start, "but we might not get the same results. You're not going to hit every night like we have."

Tampa Bay ranked a surprising second in the American League in batting average (.302) at week's end, led not by Tampa natives Boggs and McGriff—both of whom were over .300—but by a 23-year-old third baseman snapped up from the Atlanta Braves' minor league system, Bobby Smith. After Boggs went on the disabled list with a strained right calf on April 18, Smith stepped in and was hitting .362 at week's end, tops among AL rookies. "I didn't expect them to hit as well as they did," says White Sox manager Jerry Manuel, whose team lost four of its first six games to the Devil Rays. "They have a good mix of speed and power, and that's a better pitching staff than a lot of staffs that have been around the majors for years." Chicago's, for one.

With a rotation that features free-agent acquisition Alvarez (3-2, 3.96 ERA) and 29-year-old rookie Rolando Arrojo (2-2, 5.40), who defected two years ago from the Cuban national team, the Devil Rays are in the top half of the league in ERA and have a bullpen that had not lost a game through Sunday. (The Mets are the only other team in the majors who share the latter distinction.) Hernandez has performed well as the closer, but the biggest surprise is a setup man who's been unhittable: Esteban Yan, a 23-year-old Dominican righthander taken from the Orioles in the expansion draft, against whom opponents are batting .027 (1 for 37) and have yet to score a run. "We aren't in the top half of the league as far as names, but we're in the top half as far as arms," says catcher John Flaherty.

Credit for that goes to Chuck LaMar, the team's 41-year-old general manager, who, before he joined the Devil Rays, was the assistant G.M. for player personnel for the Braves, the team that has the mother of all pitching staffs. "People say there's not enough pitching to support expansion," says LaMar. "I disagree. Some of those 22 new pitching jobs have been filled by quality prospects in need of an opportunity." LaMar selected 14 pitchers among his first 25 picks of the expansion draft, and nine have already pitched for the Devil Rays. "With a payroll under $26 million, you're not going to be able to buy enough bats," LaMar says. "So we emphasized defense, pitching, foot speed and athleticism."

Sure, it's early, but when the Devil Rays are ready to fire up those victory cigars, they can do so in the majors' first in-stadium cigar bar, an addition to Tropicana Field, which was refurbished recently for $85 million (even though it was just built in 1990). However, no one in the Tampa Bay organization is getting ahead of the program. They're thinking five years. That's how long it took the Marlins to win a World Series. That's when LaMar and Rothschild—assuming they're still around—will light up.

Issue date: May 4, 1998

 
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Hot Right off the Bat

The Expanding Universe

Born Again in Boston

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