Hugh Culverhouse couldn't pronounce Lee Roy Selmon's name correctly. Art Williams proclaimed 18-year-old Vincent Lecavalier was the "Michael Jordan of hockey". While at a business chamber of commerce meeting, Vince Namoli ripped one of the businesses present for not renewing their season tickets when in reality they bought into a pricier luxury box because it was a better deal. When owners speak, people listen. This past weekend, Stuart Sternberg spoke and people listened. It may not hurt Sternberg to listen to what people are saying about his comments.
After producing and/or hosting sports talk shows in Tampa for seven years, I should know better than to lend too much credence to what the locals want from their home teams. If Tampa Bay fans had their way the Lightning would have traded Brad Richards (bad idea), the Rays would've traded the rights to the unsigned David Price (a dumb idea solely because it can't be done), and the Catholic church would have declared Mike Alstott a saint and supreme ruler of west central Florida. Yet through the delusional thinking of most sports fans here, some clarity broke through in regards to Sternberg's assessment of the Rays this season.
Speaking to the assembled media prior to Friday night's game against Cleveland, Sternberg let it be known this season's performance was "unacceptable" and everyone had "fallen short". The usually jovial Sternberg had come down to Earth, providing a cold slap of reality to those who somehow missed the memo that the Rays are once again really bad. On the surface, that's a good thing. The team is bad, the owner knows it, and he wants the fans to know he knows it. But then comes the message back from the fans:
You don't like it Stu? Then do something about it.
I'm not making that sentiment up. In fact, it was the overwhelming overall reply to Sternberg's complaints in message boards locally and on national sports network websites reporting the story. Now message board replies aren't scientific evidence supporting a belief, after all they can be edited or manipulated by the message board host. But do you really believe the hosts of boards for draysbay.com, sptimes.com, tbo.com, foxsports.com, and espn.com all got together for a conference call and said, "Fellas! We need to filter out the positive Rays comments and let the negative stuff fly in light of these Sternberg comments!" I love a good conspiracy theory, but I'm not buying that one.
So the fans have spoken, and they have unearthed a shocking revelation: if the owner doesn't like what he sees on the field, then the owner should do something to improve the situation. And I have a hunch the fans aren't implying free parking should be extended for another year.
Everyone has their own idea as to building a winning baseball team. Some believe it should be done solely within, drafting the best players to build a strong farm system that creates a 100% homegrown champion. At the other end of the spectrum is the belief a team should spend well over $100 million in free agency, building a winner through pricey, proven veterans. In the middle you'll find me, believeing a strong farm system is essential to not only establish a base of homegrown talent, but to also provide a team with enough blue-chip prospects they can trade for a veteran player who can turn the fortunes of a franchise around.
And there enlies the big question: how does Sternberg turn the fortunes of this franchise around sooner than later? If last year was a "feeling out" year where the veteran players who had no role in the future of this team were weeded out, and this year was an "establishing" year to see which young players could cut it in the big leagues, what will next year be? Will it be the year the focus shifts from learning to winning? Or will it be another year of promising an "exciting young nucleus" with "upper eschelon" pitching prospects as the team marches towards another 100-loss season?
Sternberg says the team will spend more money on payroll next season. Of course they will... they have to. As discussed last season with my radio partner Fred McGriff, if the Rays brought back every single player on the 40-man roster next season the payroll would go up simply because salaries will rise through arbitration, contract agreements, and league minimums. Besides, there's no other way to go but up in payroll after the team reduced payroll 32% entering this season (topped in differential only by the Nationals who trimmed payroll in 2007 by 41%).
Sternberg is pleased with this past offseason's acquisitions, and so am I. However, look at any major league roster and you'll find at least one player signed to a minor league deal or a bargain basement contract who has overachieved in the expectations department. The low-risk, high-reward deals that brought Carlos Pena, Brendan Harris, and Al Reyes were smart moves. Yet, two of the three players brought in didn't address the team's most pressing (and blatantly obvious) need-- pitching. Sometimes you have to spend some big bucks not for the sake of spending, but for the sake of bringing in those two or three key players the other 29 teams are fighting for.
And spending money for top talent doesn't appear to be one of Sternberg's favorite things. On signing top pick David Price, who many people think is the real deal and could be pitching in Tampa Bay as early as next September, "There's no question that everyone in baseball, including us, would have liked to have seen him sign for less money, but it's the right thing for the organization." Well Stu, as for everyone else in baseball, screw 'em. You have to do what you have to do. In order to secure the services of one of the best pitchers in the nation, you will have to give up some coin. Now I know you're a stock market guy and stock market guys don't buy high and hope the price goes higher, but if you don't like giving millions of dollars to first-overall draft picks then maybe you should field a team that doesn't finish dead last. And I can only imagine the warm and fuzzy feeling Price got when his owner wished he didn't get what he deserved.
Through 124 games this season, the Rays are amazingly two games worse (47-77) than they were at this point last season (49-75). This despite some noteworthy improvements to the infield and some trade deadline tinkering to the bullpen. The fans have already made their thoughts known about another losing season. Players such as Carl Crawford and Scott Kazmir are venting about the neverending losing. The owner is unhappy with the results in the win/loss column. That's all good because no one likes a loser, especially in this town where we've dealt with losers for the better part of 32 seasons of professional sports.
As for the Rays, it's all up to Stuart Sternberg to change the team into something that meets his expectations. And it would be wise for him to do it while fans and players still care enough to complain.
A few other notes from Raysland and elsewhere:
- Cheer up Rays fans, you could be living in Arlington, Texas. If the 100-degree heat isn't getting to the Rangers' fans (what's left of them), the fact their former first baseman is tearing it up in Atlanta must be getting them hot under the collar.
- Don't get your hopes up on acquiring Johnny Damon this offseason. Despite recently expressing a desire to play "closer to home" (Damon lives in Orlando), the Rays don't need another centerfielder (especially another INJURED centerfielder). Don't count on the Braves to acquire him either since at the age of 34 (in November) he won't exactly fill the shoes of the likely-departed Andruw Jones real well. If Damon plays the Ken Griffey Jr., version of "closer to home", expect the Lawrence, Kansas, native to end up somewhere in the midwest.
- The Yankees' recent surge for the AL East lead is exciting to watch, but comparing it to the legendary 1978 collapse of the Red Sox is a bit premature.
- Did you know?: Bucky Dent's birth name was Russell Earl O'Dey. Can you imagine hearing chowderheads scream "Rusell F---ing O'Dey!" when reminiscing about that '78 season?
- Finally, why does Fox Sports writer Dayn Perry look like he had a BAC of .217 when his picture was taken?