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Though it was no more than a blip on the national sports radar, the signing of outfielder-DH-first baseman Aubrey Huff to a three-year, $14.5 million contract extension on Jan. 8 was most significant to the future of Tampa Bay baseball. "A historic day for this franchise," general manager Chuck LaMar calls it.
Who is Aubrey Huff? And why should anyone care that the Devil Rays threw good money at him? In batting .311 with 198 hits, 34 home runs and 107 RBIs last year, Huff fell just short of becoming the 16th player in American League history to have 200 hits, 35 homers and 100 RBIs in a season. Best of all, the woebegone franchise was able to keep one of the game's bright young stars in town.
"It sent a message to our players that you can be a really good player and stay here," says LaMar. "It sent a message to our fans, who were wondering, Are you developing young stars just so you can trade them off? By the end of this year, hopefully, we'll be having the same discussions we had with Aubrey with Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli."
"This team's going to win, and I wanted to be a part of it," says Huff, who will bat third or fourth this year, with 22-year-old outfielders Crawford (55 steals last year) and Baldelli (184 hits, 27 steals) setting the table ahead of him. "It's easy to go somewhere else, be a part of something that's already built and win a World Series. It's going to be special when we win, like it was when the Bucs won the Super Bowl. They were patient and developed their own talent."
When Huff was six and living in Mineral Wells, Texas, his father was shot and killed when he intervened during an argument at the apartment complex where he worked. Aubrey's mother, Fonda, raised him and his younger sister, Angela, and was determined to provide for them as well as she could. On his way home from a Texas Rangers game as a nine-year-old, Aubrey told his mom that he wanted a batting cage so mat he could chase his dream of being a big leaguer. She paid $2,500 for the cage and had it set up in the backyard. After a year or so, he persuaded his mom to buy a pitching machine and some rudimentary lighting. Day after day he'd hit, and some nights, too, all the way through high school. "I didn't have much of a night life," Huff says. "I was a pretty shy dude. Usually it was just me out there alone, hitting. That's where I molded my swing. Without that cage, I wouldn't be here now."
A lefthanded hitter who likes to go the other way, Huff, 27, was recalled by Tampa Bay in May 2002 and has started 275 consecutive games since. He split time in right-field and at first and third base last year, but he'll mostly DH this season because the Devil Rays signed free-agent outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. and acquired first baseman Tino Martinez from the Cardinals. Since the 2002 All-Star break only Albert Pujols of St. Louis (306) and Vernon Wells of Toronto (304) have more hits than Huff's 301, and only Garret Anderson of Anaheim (124) and Manny Ramirez of Boston and Magglio Ordonez of the White Sox (121) have more extra-base hits than Huff's 120. "He's a doubles machine," says manager Lou Piniella. "He's as natural a hitter as you'll see."
"So many guys in the game are pull-conscious," Huff says. "I don't try to make it too hard. See ball, hit ball. I'm happy to just rap a change to leftfield. If the pitcher throws it soft, I hit it soft. I don't guess very much. If it's an 0-and-2 count, I never want to think change, because then I'll never catch up to the fastball."
Of course, all the hitting by Huff and the rest of the Devil Rays will carry the club only so far. This organization has to find some pitching. Even Piniella notes that "most of the top prospects in our system are position players." And the team doesn't have the money to be able to sign a marquee free-agent starter.
That's what makes this season so important in Tampa Bay. The Devil Rays need to start strong and hope for a boost in attendance from the league-low 13,070 average of last season. They need the extra revenue to chase after quality pitching next winter. "This year we divided our [free-agent] spending among a lot of low-cost players," Piniella says. "Next year we hope to be able to take a little more money and maybe try to sign two or three players who could really help us immediately."
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