Compounding that frustration was Rodriguez's worry about when—or if—he would get back to full speed and have the confidence to push himself the way he did before the injury, a torn meniscus. Some of that anxiety was alleviated by teammates Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez, both veterans of the operating room, who assured Rodriguez that he could make a complete recovery. Fans helped, too. "I got so many letters from doctors and lawyers and other people out there, people who said they had had their knees scoped and that I would be back in no time," he says. "That was very encouraging."
Rodriguez says he feels no pain in the knee now but figures he's still about a month away from being fully comfortable and consistent at the plate. Still, a day after hitting that monstrous home run in San Diego, he looked fine scampering from first to third on a single to set up the Mariners' first run in a 3-2 loss to the Padres. "I've been doing well, but inconsistently," says Rodriguez. "I could be doing much better."
Bedeviled in Tampa Bay
Consider the Devil Rays at the end of last week: They had the major league home run leader (Jose Canseco), a venerable star chasing his 3,000th hit (Wade Boggs), a Tampa-born slugger enjoying a resurgent year (Fred McGriff) and, until enduring a 2-8 stretch that included being swept at home by the Marlins over the weekend, were even playing decent baseball that had them hovering around .500.
Yet Tampa Bay had experienced a 32% drop-off in attendance this year—485,902 in its first 25 home dates compared with 714,309 through the same number of games in 1998, when the Devil Rays joined the American League. Only Tampa Bay's expansion cousins, the Diamondbacks, had lost more customers in that time, yet Arizona had still outdrawn the Devil Rays by more than 321,000.
What's wrong? Several things, not the least of which is an antiseptic, domed ballpark that has all the ambience of a warehouse. Fans have also been turned off by Tropicana Field's location in St. Petersburg, which on game nights can be an hour's drive from Tampa. The Devil Rays estimate that only 12% to 15% of their ticket buyers make the trek from Tampa, which has a population of 285,000. That means the team is relying heavily on the less-populous (236,000) St. Petersburg to fill seats.
Then there's owner Vincent Naimoli, who has drawn public ire by reportedly talking in private about moving the Devil Rays to Tampa—even though they still have 26 years remaining on their Tropicana Field lease. "We are not going anywhere," he said publicly in May. Naimoli may also have chased off marketing wizard Mike Veeck, whom he hired last October after attendance for Tampa Bay's first season fell about 500,000 short of its goal of three million. The son of Bill Veeck, the outrageous former owner of the Indians and White Sox, Mike hadn't had time to make his mark before abruptly quitting last month. Veeck says he resigned to spend more time with his seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, who is ill, and has refused to criticize Naimoli, and he agreed to stay on as a consultant to the team.
Naimoli has already hinted that, with Tampa Bay's season-ticket base down to 13,500 from 21,600 in 1998, and projected total attendance this pear of just 1.7 million, he may lose money and thus be unwilling to go on a free-agent spending spree this winter. That's not likely to cause crowds to spike anytime soon.
Who Should Take the Fall?
All the ingredients for a managerial change were stewing on the Mets last week: an eight-game losing streak, a team rich in payroll and playoff expectations tumbling below .500, players sniping about playing time and tabloids calling for blood. Yet when New York general manager Steve Phillips wielded the ax last Saturday, he spared skipper Bobby Valentine and instead chopped away at Valentine's staff, relieving pitching coach Bob Apodaca, hitting coach Tom Robson and bullpen coach Randy Niemann of their duties. "I truly hope that Bobby gets this thing going in the right direction," Phillips said in announcing the firings. "My thought is this is giving him a better opportunity to be successful."