King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Another sellout for the Devil Rays! That's four in nine years. But things really are looking up.


Salon Staff
April 11, 2006 11:00PM (UTC)

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays sold out their home opener Monday, and the first curtain-raiser of the Stuart Sternberg ownership era was a sellout. The Tropicana Dome opened its doors, welcomed 40,199 fans, and said, "What the heck are all those things?!"

You have to forgive the dome for not recognizing a large crowd of fans. The sellout was the fourth in franchise history.

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In franchise history, it was the fourth sellout.

For the fourth time since the franchise began, there was a sellout.

I just didn't want you to miss that.

The Devil Rays are in their ninth season. So they're reeling 'em in at the rate of one sellout every other year.

Almost.

You get a sellout a year with your franchise fee. It comes in the box. It's called Opening Day. And unless you really screw things up, you get a few other automatics, on big giveaway days. It's just mind-boggling how badly the Devil Rays have been run.

But that seems to be changing under Sternberg, who took control in October. He's made a number of fan-friendly gestures, including Monday's offer of free parking. And he and general manager Andrew Friedman have mended fences with the team's players too, none of whom were happy under the previous regime of penny-pinching owner Vince Naimoli and grumpy general manager Chuck LaMarr.

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"As soon as I get my time in up there I'll bounce out of there," top prospect Delmon Young said last year after the Devil Rays didn't call him up in September and didn't have what he called the "common courtesy" to explain to him why not, despite repeated calls from Young's agent to the team asking for an explanation.

"There's no reason to stay around for the long haul," Young said, then referring to the service time required before becoming a free agent, "Get your six years and leave."

Young, a 20-year-old outfielder, was almost certainly right when he speculated the Rays didn't call him up last year because they were being cheap, not wanting to start the clock on his service time and hasten the day when he's eligible for arbitration and then free agency.

The new bosses have started Young in the minors this year too, along with shortstop prospect B.J. Upton. The difference is that they have baseball reasons for doing so.

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New field manager Joe Maddon has said he'd like Young to get a little more experience at Triple-A Durham and to work on his strike zone. Young has walked about once in every 14 plate appearances in the minors, which is even less often than his free-swinging brother Dmitri, a Detroit Tiger, has walked in the majors. That's saying something.

Young's not happy to be playing for the Durham Bulls, but he's also not talking anymore like being under contract to the Devil Rays is a six-year prison sentence. And it looks like that's right. Things are looking up for the Tampas.

They've got a good-looking lineup, with a surplus of talented young outfielders, and it's only going to get better when Young and Upton arrive. There's no pitching yet, but there is something even more important than that: the apparent intent to run the Devil Rays like a baseball team.

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And lo, the people of Tampa-St. Pete, who supposedly don't care about baseball, showed up on Opening Day. It was just one game, but there's been just one game that was Opening Day every year, and those one games mostly haven't sold out. Amazing what happens when you stop insulting the customers.

Sternberg has raised the idea of changing the team's name. I'm usually not a fan of that, but in this case I'm all for it. The Devil Rays have been such a blight that starting over seems like a good idea. Also, a new name would mean new uniforms, and those can only get better.

I like the idea of big-league expansion teams taking on the names of the old minor league team from their town, the way the San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Angels and Florida Marlins did, though the latter should have been the Miami Marlins. The Colorado Rockies would have been better as the Denver Bears too.

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The St. Petersburg Saints would be a nice name for the Rays, all at once signaling that the new team is the polar opposite of the old Devils, tipping the cap to St. Pete's old team and acknowledging that the club plays its games in St. Petersburg, not in the water. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The Devil Rays still have a lot of work to do. The crowds won't be 40,000-plus as a matter of course. Nothing like that will happen unless the team starts winning. But there's hope now.

I've already predicted that Tampa Bay won't finish last in the American League East. Now, another prediction: After selling out three home games in the first eight years of their existence, the Devil Rays will sell out at least four this season.

Previous column: Boxing, Frozen Four

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