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VAN DYCK: Piniella brings Tampa a Ray of hope

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.

Here by the bay, fans (yes, there are some) are placing their over-under bets. Just when will Lou Piniella throw his first first base, kick his first baseball cap, cover his first home plate in dust, be thrown out of his first game as Tampa Bay manager? Sure, it will happen, even though Piniella insists he has mellowed now that he can see 60. After all, he is manager of baseball's most embarrassing, losingest franchise, isn't he? And we all know the only thing that Piniella and patience have in common is a first letter. It may be hard to envision Piniella as a Tampa Bay babysitter, but that's what he is. (And a very highly-paid one, too.) So the question is: Can a manager — even one who has won a world championship and amassed an American League record victory total — make a difference for a team that has never lost fewer than 90 games? Well, for those fans who believe that managers just show up everyday, sit in the dugout and make goofy little signs between spits and scratches, we have news: Building a winning team starts in spring training by instilling a winning attitude and work ethic. So Piniella told his kids what any good babysitter would: Sit up, pay attention, adjust your attitude and we'll have a fun time together; do it your way and we will have major trouble. Piniella says he wants his team to have a "strut" and "swagger," which is not exactly something you order from the Rawlings man. So how do you do it? "The key is making players feel good about themselves," he said. "You go play hard, you play to win, and if you get beat, you come out and play hard the next night." Of course, winning helps with the strut-and-swagger stuff, and Piniella plans to do something about that, too. "We're really, really going to stress fundamentals," he said. "That's going to be the theme of this camp. "We want execution. We're going to go over and over things until we get it right." Now, you might just think that that is just so much cliched chatter. You know, it sounds good for the fans and keeps the media notebooks filled but forgotten out on the field. Not with Piniella. "Making mistakes is not tolerable," says pitching coach Chris Bosio, who played for Piniella in Seattle. "That's one thing Lou is very big on, minimizing mistakes. "If you do it wrong (in drills), you will do it again until you get it right. There are no exceptions. We want it done right." Always, the coaches remind the players. And for reinforcement, there is that intimidating figure strutting around the practice field, his keen eyes taking it all in and his active mind taking notes. ""He has total preparation," says former manager and long-time Piniella coach Lee Elia. "Players can smell that. Plus, he has great presence." "Presence, intensity, trying ultimately to have the perfect game," Bosio says. "He brings a winning attitude," says veteran catcher , almost old enough to be some of the kids' father. "You know you better buy into it or you're not going to be around. "And that's good here, because we have a very young club. They have to know that the only way is winning." Young? You better believe it. , and , all 21-year-old rookies, could open in the outfield. "The kids bring an energy, an enthusiasm, a willingness to please and do good, to impress," Piniella said. "You don¿t have to push the young ones, they do it themselves." Hamilton, the former No. 1 draft choice who has been a disappointment so far, is working on something around his 26th tattoo, going from shoulders to feet. It's not exactly what old-school managers like to see. "Hey, if he can hit me 40 homers, you can put 26 (tattoos) on me, too," Piniella said, "albeit very small ones." It always helps to have a sense of humor when you¿re managing a team that's the first in a quarter century to lose 100 games in back-to-back seasons. It also helps to have some pitchers, which is one reason that Piniella was greeted by 73 players on the first day of ' camp. But while the Rays have the kids and other hitters, such as 26-year-old star-in-the-making , they don¿t have any pitchers past . That's what happens when you dismiss a combined 500 innings of starters and 21 of 25 saves. "That's going to be the biggest job, to put together a staff," Piniella said. He also says things like, "Right now it's more supposition than anything else." That's because he doesn't even know the names of all 73 players yet. And he may not know them all before he makes his first cuts. They all know him. And you have to be blind, if you live in Tampa Bay, not to know Piniella. His face is plastered on billboards, on pocket schedules and on television. It's obvious Lou Piniella didn't come home — which was his stated desire when leaving Seattle — to retire. Strange how things work out, isn't it? Can't you just imagine Piniella managing the on the east coast of Florida? Sure you can, much easier than you can imagine him managing this hopeless franchise, but Seattle wasn't buying into that scenario. So here is Tampa native Lou Piniella, back home to save what seems unsalvageable. His days are filled with requests, from a meeting with a Chamber of Commerce person to entertaining long-time friends during a workout. "It's not really a pain," he said. "I knew the first year would be a little more demanding, and it has been. That will go away. "I've been the focus (of promotions) in the winter. Once the season starts, the focus should be on the good young players and club should get the attention." That may not be such a good idea, not when you're trying to sell tickets. And not when there are over-under bets to be won. Dave van Dyck can be reached at his e-mail address: dvandyck@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Mets, Rays, Aubrey Huff, Carl Crawford

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