Rays Anatomy 'Intriguing'

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays rank 29th in the majors in attendance with 15,420 fans per game. Tropicana Field would be even more of an echo chamber if not for the roving bands of Red Sox and Yankees fans who spread their special brand of joy at parks around the American League.

The Derek Jeter love and Kevin Youkilis chants don't go unnoticed among Tampa Bay players who would prefer a little more support at home.

AP Photo/George Widman Carl Crawford's name has surfaced in trade rumors as the Devil Rays consider what to do about their overloaded outfield."It makes you mad when it's your home place and they don't cheer for you," Rays shortstop Julio Lugo said. "When we play the Yankees, probably 80 percent of the fans are Yankee fans. But when we beat the Yankees, they turn into Tampa Bay fans. That tells you if we win, they'll come out."

The Devil Rays have never really tested that proposition in more than theory. There's no need to rehash the franchise's first nine years in depth, but any retrospective must include the Greg Vaughn contract debacle, local fans and corporate sponsors feeling alienated by the ham-handed Vince Naimoli ownership group, and baseballs getting stuck in catwalks. It's not a pretty sight.

Quietly, the Rays are making progress. They're two games over .500 outside the AL East this season, even with a scary run of injuries. Now that Rocco Baldelli, Aubrey Huff, Jorge Cantu and Lugo are off the disabled list after missing a combined 147 games, the Rays will try to improve their status as the worst on-base and 13th-best scoring team in the league.

The new Stuart Sternberg ownership group and the young Matt Silverman-Andrew Friedman front office tandem have brought energy and a sense of direction to the franchise. But lately it's been overwhelmed by what St. Petersburg Times writer Marc Topkin calls "Prospects Gone Wild," the nightly soap opera emanating from the Tampa Bay farm system.

Shortstop B.J. Upton, whose biggest problem has been an inability to pick up balls and throw them accurately for Triple-A Durham, was pinched Friday for driving 51 mph in a 30-mph zone with a blood alcohol level of .11. For most organizations, this might qualify as a big deal. For the Devil Rays, it was just another reason to haul out the handy-dandy "crisis management" press release.

Outfielder Josh Hamilton, he of the multiple drug violations, is in extended spring training awaiting word from Major League Baseball on whether he can join a minor-league club. Privately, Devil Rays officials are doubtful Hamilton can fulfill his potential as the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry showed how difficult it is to beat addiction, and for all of Hamilton's promise, he is 25 years old and has never played above the high Class A California League.

Outfielder Elijah Dukes, a physical specimen at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, joined the fray Saturday when the Rays sent him home from Durham for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. Dukes' baseball suspensions are now running neck and neck with his previous misdemeanor arrests (four or five, depending on which newspaper account you believe).

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