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).

And of course, there's Delmon Young, whose April bat toss was replayed on ESPN more than autistic basketball manager Jason McElwain's 3-point barrage. Young lost $145,000 in salary during his 50-game suspension and did 50 hours of community service, during which he conducted Little League clinics and played wheelchair baseball with disabled youngsters. He finally returns to action Monday night.

"Delmon is going to have to go out of his way to battle this for a long time," Friedman said. "We hope and expect he'll learn from it and be better for it. A lot of it is rhetoric right now, but he definitely seems to grasp the magnitude of it."

Things better improve soon, or the beleaguered Durham Bulls might have to call in the Duke athletic department security force for assistance.

Frustrating events The barrage of bad news is compounded by the Rays' failure to build a legitimate pitching rotation. Former first-round pick Dewon Brazelton has been a bust in Tampa and San Diego. And Rice products Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend, who could take some pressure off an emerging Scott Kazmir, are both trying to come back from arm surgery.

"I want us to play against the perceived best teams in all of baseball. I think as we do that, it's going to make us better quicker." -- Devil Rays manager Joe MaddonInjuries can't be helped. It's the extraneous stuff that's giving the Rays a case of transgression fatigue. "It's a little bit frustrating," manager Joe Maddon said Friday after the Upton incident. "But these are young men. I wasn't nearly a perfect soldier at that point in my development as a human, either.

"We support Delmon. We support B.J. We support Elijah. These three guys are off-the-chart good baseball players, and I think they're good people too. When a young man makes a mistake, it's our job to make sure it doesn't happen again. If it becomes a persistent problem, then obviously something may have to be done about it. But I'm OK with second chances. I think everybody deserves a second chance."

Maddon, a former Lafayette University economics major and Luciano Pavarotti fan, is more suited to the building mode than Lou Piniella, whose tenure in Tampa tested his natural impulse to yank bases from their moorings. Maddon delivers his critiques in even-tempered, constructive tones, and he's as open-minded as they get. Twice this year he's stationed four players in the outfield and his second baseman in short right field to defense David Ortiz and Ryan Howard.

Just make sure to bring your dictionary. So far this season, Maddon has used the word "transmogrify" (to change the appearance of) to describe Toronto's Rogers Centre with the roof open and closed; "anamorphic" on the lack of roles in the Rays' bullpen; and "ameliorate" in regard to Baldelli's efforts to come back from a leg injury.

Maddon even employed "Meat Loaf" as a verb.

"Whenever you Meat Loaf the world champs, it's not a bad thing," he said after the Devil Rays took two of three from the White Sox. As in the old song, "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad."

"He's a very special person," Lugo said. "He communicates with the players very well and lets you be who you are. He talks when he needs to talk and shuts up when he needs to shut up. That's important."

Trade speculation One of Maddon's biggest challenges is keeping his players focused amid the trade rumors. Lugo, catcher Toby Hall and Huff are chat-board speculation regulars. But the biggest prize in town is Carl Crawford, whose name recently surfaced in a rumored deal for Angels starter Ervin Santana.

Gomes In reality, the Crawford speculation has gotten ahead of itself. Yes, the Rays have an outfield surplus. But Baldelli just returned after missing 221 games with knee and elbow injuries. Jonny Gomes is ideally a DH, and Joey Gathright's offensive problems earned him a trip to the minors. Huff is currently playing third base, and Young and Dukes have delayed their development with off-field issues.

Crawford, 24, is a triples and stolen base machine and the "best defensive left fielder in the game today," according to John Dewan's "The Fielding Bible." He has scored 100 runs two straight years while raising his OPS from .671 in 2003 to .854 thus far this season. He is also signed to a very affordable deal that could run through 2010. The Rays would want such a talent haul in return, Crawford probably isn't even worth discussing.

If the rumors are preying on Crawford's psyche, he doesn't show it. He has 13 multiple-hit games in his last 22 starts, and he's batting .339 since Maddon moved him from leadoff to the No. 2 hole in early May.

"I'm from Houston and all we knew were [Jeff] Bagwell and [Craig] Biggio since I was a kid," Crawford said. "I definitely wanted to be one of those guys who stayed with a team the whole time. Then I got to the big leagues and I understood that's hard to do now. I'm fine with it. If the organization has other plans, I'll just have to deal with that."

A scout who follows the Devil Rays regularly describes them as a notorious first-ball fastball hitting team that wears out mediocre pitching. He also characterized the pitching as "brutal," particularly in the bullpen. Veterans Dan Miceli and Shinji Mori are on the disabled list, and with the recently acquired Tyler Walker now down with a strained right elbow, the Rays are essentially closer-less.

Management continues to monitor the progress of former Dodgers phenom Edwin Jackson, who is clocking 96-plus in Durham. The short-term plan is to have Jackson come to the majors as a reliever this season, then compete for a starting job next spring. But Friedman won't rule out the possibility of Jackson's closing games with the big club.

Even though the Rays are 12-25 in the division, Maddon likes the challenge of competing against teams with more tradition and gargantuan payrolls.

"I want us to play against the perceived best teams in all of baseball," Maddon said. "I think as we do that, it's going to make us better quicker."

Until the Devil Rays transmogrify into the real thing, file them under "intriguing." It's tough to reach your destination when each step forward comes with an accompanying step back.