Through Sunday the Devil Rays, who were a league-worst 19-36 and in last place in the East, had hit only 62 homers (12th in the league) and driven in 267 runs (tied for 10th). That's a far cry from the production LaMar expected when he gave 36-year-old first baseman Fred McGriff a two-year extension on Sept. 3, 1999, got 32-year-old third baseman Vinny Castilla in a trade from the Rockies on Dec. 13 and signed 34-year-old free-agent leftfielder Greg Vaughn the same day. Tampa Bay was so excited about its middle lineup of McGriff, Vaughn and Castilla, plus 35-year-old DH Jose Canseco, that it put the foursome on the cover of its 2000 media guide, accompanied by a catchy nickname (Hit Show 2000) and pictures of top homer quartets from each of the past seven decades. Through Sunday the Devil Rays' foursome had combined for 36 home runs and 122 RBIs.
"If there's anyone to blame, it's me," says LaMar, Tampa Bay's general manager for all three of its seasons. "I can't do anything about the injuries, but maybe we erroneously brought in some players whose careers were going downhill. Maybe they're not capable. I thought we could win at least 80 games with the money we spent. We should be playing better."
With the exception of Vaughn, who through Sunday led the Devil Rays with a .294 average and 13 home runs, much of the lineup has been a disappointment. Castilla missed most of spring training and the first seven games of the season with a strained rib-cage muscle and was batting only .219 with six homers. There were hints last season that Castilla, once one of the National League's most feared fastball hitters, had lost some of the speed on his swing. He hit a career-low .275 in 1999, but LaMar was undeterred in his pursuit of him. "I still think Vinny has life left in him," LaMar says. "He's just off to a slow start." Maybe. But as Tampa Bay's recent trade discussions with the Yankees about Canseco (who had seven homers before going on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to May 25, with a sore foot) reveal, any expectations for Hit Show 2000 have come and gone.
In his defense, LaMar notes that expansion teams—including the Diamondbacks, who were born the same year as the Devil Rays—must rely on veterans until a farm system is developed. Yet while Arizona's free-agent signings, including starting pitchers Randy Johnson and Todd Stottlemyre and outfielder Steve Finley, have produced, Tampa Bay's have not. Along with the disappointing sluggers, LaMar brought in two free-agent righthanded starters: Juan Guzman, who's making $6 million, has missed almost the entire season with tendinitis in his right shoulder; and Steve Trachsel, only a moderate bust at $1 million per, was 3-6 at week's end with a 5.13 ERA. "I don't make excuses," says LaMar, "but injuries have hurt us."
By depending on older players, that's a risk the Devil Rays chose to take.
Minor League Lifers' Debuts
Better Late Than Never
Were there ever a time to be a marginally talented, bus-loving hanger-on, it's now. Last week the Marlins summoned righthanded reliever Joe Strong from Triple A Calgary, and the Reds recalled first baseman D.T. Cromer from Triple A Louisville. Strong is 37; Cromer is 29. Before this season neither had played an inning in the majors.
Strong is the oldest player to debut in the majors since 41-year-old Diomedes Olivo joined the Pirates on Sept. 5, 1960. Three years ago he was out of baseball, operating a forklift at a Sears warehouse. To stay in shape, he threw balls at the store's back wall. After hitting 96 mph with his first pitch at a tryout, he got an offer from the Hyundai Unicorns of the Korea Baseball Organization, for whom he pitched in '98, racking up 27 saves and a 2.95 ERA in 53 games. Signed by the Devil Rays last season and sent to their Triple A Durham Bulls and then to their Double A Orlando Rays, Strong was loaned in July to the Mexico City Tigers of the Mexican League. A Marlins scout saw him there, was impressed by his 96-mph fastball and signed him to a minor league deal. On May 10, Strong was at home when he got a phone call from Calgary manager Lynn Jones. "I thought, 'Uh-oh. I'm the oldest guy, and we're losing.' Getting released went through my mind," Strong says.
Instead, Strong was promoted. He had a 5.63 ERA in eight innings and then was sent back down on May 25. On Sunday, after returning to Florida earlier in the week, he pitched the eighth and ninth innings in the Marlins' 7-2 loss to the Blue Jays, giving up one run on two hits and a walk and striking out two.
Cromer made the Cincinnati roster out of spring training but was sent down on April 19, even though he hit .409 with six RBIs playing in place of injured Sean Casey. Like many minor league lifers, Cromer—who was selected by the A's in the 11th round of the June 1992 draft—had had his moments on the farm but had never been given a solid opportunity to make the parent club. After batting .329 with 30 home runs and 130 RBIs for Class A Modesto in '96, he was named the A's minor league player of the year but wasn't invited to train with the big club the next spring. He hit .310 with 30 home runs and 107 RBIs for Triple A Indianapolis last year but wasn't a late-season call-up by Cincinnati. "When I was drafted, I didn't expect to play in the minors for eight seasons before getting a chance," says Cromer, who was born in Lake City, S.C., "but I have to believe the Lord has a plan for everyone. This was his plan for me."