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IMPOTENT DEVIL RAYS LIKELY TO FOUNDER ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK

Major League Baseball, a visitor to this area since Babe Ruth's days, usually packs up to head north about this time. This spring, it is different. It's here to stay.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays make their American League debut in Tropicana Field -- which is actually the Suncoast Dome with a nose job -- in less than two weeks. The Rays' roster is populated mostly by strangers.

Local pride aside, the fans might have found more entertainment in a split-squad exhibition game between the Pirates and Phillies.

One of the few recognizable faces belongs to Wade Boggs, a Tampa native who made good in a big way during 16 seasons with the Red Sox and Yankees. Boggs needs just 200 hits to became one of the rare major leaguers to reach 3,000 in his career.

"I think I can do it this season," he says. "I've had seven other 200-hit seasons. Why not this year?"

Boggs' professional attitude, as well as his .362 batting average over the second half of last season, is one of the reasons the Devil Rays wanted him. The veteran is so upbeat that he even speaks well of his time in New York.

"It was so relaxing, I loved it," he claims. "I was coming off the worst season of my career in Boston when I signed with the Yankees. I was the enemy coming into uncharted waters. I just played hard there and the fans warmed up to me.

"A lot of players go to New York and hate it. With me it was different, probably because I was coming from Boston.

"The New York press was fair with me, too. They wrote about the game. That was refreshing. They treated me like gold."

Boggs says he even had a good relationship with George Steinbrenner, the Yankee owner whose home is in Tampa. "I probably had something the other players didn't have," Boggs surmises. "I was a hometown guy."

Attitude, such as Boggs', will have to take the Devil Rays a long way. Other than the former American League batting champion, first baseman Fred McGriff, designated hitter Paul Sorrento and outfielder Dave Martinez, Tampa Bay does not have proven hitters on its roster.

The solution of the manager, Larry Rothschild, is to play National League-style baseball in the American League. He has the backing of Chuck LaMar, the general manager.

"It's obvious we can't slug it out with a lot of the American League teams," says Rothschild. "But it's not the only way to win games."

Rothschild claims there isn't much difference in the play of the two major leagues, but statistics don't bear him out. Last season, the American League hit 344 more home runs, scored 724 more runs and hit eight percentage points higher for average. The National League stole 326 more bases and hit 87 more triples.

"We'll do whatever we can to get guys in motion," says Rothschild. "I don't care how powerful your lineup is, you can't depend on that every day. The hardest thing for us right now is we don't have a lot of speed."

Tony LaRussa, the St. Louis manager who spent 18 years in the American League, thinks that might be a recipe for disaster.

"In the American League, you play some teams that have five or six tough outs in their lineups," says LaRussa. "Some teams have seven or eight, and one or two have nine. So you better have five or six.

"The hidden thing is that if you don't play good defense in the American League, you give teams extra outs and you can get pounded more."

Pounded or not, the Devil Rays' owner, Vince Naimoli, is thinking money, not offensive styles. He projects that his team will average 40,000 fans a game and generate revenues of between $90 to 100 million, putting it among the top eight major-league teams.

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