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Jeff Pearlman
June 25, 2001
Hitting His StrideAfter a wrenching personal loss, Bernie Williams is sparking the Yankees again
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June 25, 2001

Baseball

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Devil Rays' New Direction
They're Headed Back to the Farm

In the four weeks since Tampa Bay hired John McHale Jr. to fill the newly created position of chief operating officer, McHale, who was the Tigers' president and CEO for the last 6� years, has made it clear that developing players, not importing veterans, will again be the team's priority. Before the 2000 season, the franchise's third, general manager Chuck LaMar abandoned the develop-from-within strategy and added $25 million to the previous year's payroll, mostly by acquiring third baseman Vinny Castilla, outfielders Greg Vaughn and Gerald Williams, and pitchers Juan Guzman and Steve Trachsel.

The result? The Devil Rays won only 69 games last year and, after suffering a three-game sweep by the Marlins last weekend, fell to a major-league-worst 21-47 this season. Of those expensive pickups, only Vaughn, whose 17 home runs and 48 RBIs through Sunday made him an All-Star candidate, has panned out.

"I like to think of Toronto's gradual rise as the expansion model to follow," says McHale, noting that it took the Blue Jays nine years to make the playoffs. "We have to let our fans know that patience is needed, and we have to have the courage to say no to the temptation of high-priced free agents."

In that spirit Tampa Bay will gladly say yes to a team interested in acquiring any of the eight or so veteran Devil Rays with hefty contracts. Vaughn ($8.5 million per year), usually Tampa Bay's DH, lately has been seeing more time in leftfield, the better to showcase him for a contender with outfield needs ( Mariners). Righthander Albie Lopez ($2.975 million) had a 3-9 record and 5.59 ERA through Sunday but was still getting the ball every fifth day in case a front-runner in need of a starter (Phillies or Yankees) was watching.

"Everyone criticizes management," says Vaughn, who takes up a good chunk of the Devil Rays' $57 million payroll. "The truth is, if all the guys signed last year did what they are supposed to, no one would be talking youth movement."

The player Tampa Bay most wants to shed is Williams, who, after a career year in 2000 (.274, 21 home runs, 89 RBIs), was batting .207 with four homers at week's end and had recently lost his starting job in centerfield to a platoon of Randy Winn and Jason Tyner. Worse for the Devil Rays: Should Williams, whose 2001 salary is $3 million, reach 1,000 plate appearances with Tampa Bay, his $4 million option for 2002 would be guaranteed. Through Sunday, Williams had 934 over his season and a half with the Rays.

Although LaMar is still involved in personnel moves, the Devil Rays have sharply reduced his authority since McHale's appointment. While Tampa Bay is a bad team that averages a league-low 14,790 fans per game, McHale's commitment to youth is encouraging. The club's top prospect, Double A outfielder Josh Hamilton, has star potential, and the Rays' first-round pick in the June draft, Middle Tennessee righthander Dewon Brazelton, could reach the majors within two years. Two rookies, second baseman Damian Rolls (.292, 10 stolen bases) and lefthanded starter Joe Kennedy (2-1, 5.17 ERA), appear to be keepers. Says McHale, "Anybody who follows the players' side of baseball has to be impressed with our young prospects."

Orioles' Jerry Hairston
Hot Hitter Plays With Fire

Contrary to appearances on the diamond, Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston knows the value of humility. Since being baptized a Jehovah's Witness last July, Hairston has been knocking on doors all over Baltimore, spreading the message of his faith. "A lot of people say, 'Man, you look just like Jerry Hairston,' " he says. "I tell them, 'I get that a lot, everywhere I go.' I never want to go into people's homes and tell them, 'Hi, I'm Jerry Hairston.' I want to keep it low-key."

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