Jump on the Bandwagon

With a number of scribbles of his Mount Blanc pen on the contracts of James Shields, Carlos Pena, Scott Kazmir and Jonny Gomes, along with free agents Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival, Rays' owner Stuart Sternberg has peaked the interest of every baseball fan and pundit from hither and yon, says Rays Digest columnist Ted Fleming.

ST. PETERSBURG - If this was politics, it would be called a classic case of flip-flopping.

It was just one year ago that fans and media alike were ready to run Rays' management up the flagpole for daring to spend the $10 million they had on hand for a scoreboard and making Tropicana Field a little more comfortable to watch a game.

"We could have got a front-line pitcher," some would chant angrily. "What about some help for the bullpen?" others spat long before anyone knew it would implode to the degree it did. "Hell, for $10-million we could have had both."

Ever since I sat in on the press conference when Stuart Sternberg formally took over for Vince Naimoli, I believed he and his partners had a game plan. To paraphrase a line from the movie The Hunt for Red October and uttered by a recent Presidential hopeful, "Son, rich New Yorkers don't take a dump without a plan."

They did and hit the ground running.

Unfortunately, it wasn't fast enough for the majority of people in the Tampa Bay, area because like most of today's generation, everything has to be done yesterday before anyone notices.

Contextually, they are now correct, because it was yesterday that hope began to pop its collective head out of the sands along the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay.

With a number of scribbles of his Mount Blanc pen on the contracts of James Shields, Carlos Pena, Scott Kazmir and Jonny Gomes, along with free agents Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival, Sternberg has peaked the interest of every baseball fan and pundit from hither and yon.

But it didn't end there.

The trades of Jeff Ridgway and Delmon Young have added much needed depth in the rotation with the addition of Matt Garza, and the acquisitions of utility infielder Willy Aybar and shortstop Jason Bartlett do the same for the Rays' infield corps. Virtually overnight the Rays look very good in a division that could be the Red Sox and everyone else.

So here we are, less than a month from spring training, and the Rays are suddenly relevant.

The same fans who compared the new owners to the old ones when they began 2007 with a paltry $24-million payroll are now reading books on the intricacies of bandwagon jumping.

The same radio, television and print folk who hammered everyone from manager Joe Maddon right up to Sternberg are figuring out how to do their mea culpas without looking like total phonies.

Few were willing to give the new guys the same honeymoon they gave Naimoli. When you have been fleeced by a huckster you tend to have your guard up only that did not jive with their willingness to get rid of him at all costs.

The man who should have been canonized for bringing baseball to the region had become more vilified than the Buccaneers' late, and not so great, owner Hugh Culverhouse. Regardless, that was then and this is now. Naimoli will fade into oblivion and in some circles he already has.

The Rays exorcised the "Devil" in the team name, are set to put their players in spanking new threads, unveiled plans for a state of the art downtown stadium and head to camp with nearly 20 members of the 25-man roster already set.

For some, they wanted the same instant gratification of getting rid of Naimoli to happen on the field. After all, the new guys had the deep pockets and the white horse.

To hell with superficial stuff like a dank, dreary and disgustingly dirty Tropicana Field, a minor league system that had produced little to nothing or anything that guaranteed the long-term viability of the team in Tampa Bay. It wasn't talk they wanted to hear just the cha-ching of checkbook baseball.

After all, Sternberg and his sidekicks were from the Big Apple, weren't they?

To their credit, the plan was to attack the entire organization from the inside out, getting rid of the dead weight, establishing an organizational book called the "Rays' Way" and putting it all into motion in a timely fashion.

Well, guess what? Not three years in, the Rays have arrived.

It should have happened a long time ago but patience and ability were not strong suits in the Naimoli / Chuck LaMar regime.

Some of the more astute baseball people saw it coming last year. They would point to a franchise that was close to being a force. Sadly, many Rays' fans were the last to notice.

That's what happens when you look at just today and not at the bigger picture. Ownership and few others did.

Maddon was over his head as skipper - a Larry Rothschild redux.

Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman looked like he had yet to hold a razor, so how could he play with the established GMs, some of whom had been involved in professional baseball longer than he had been alive?

And, of course, there was Mr. Sternberg. The accusations were flying that he was only in it for the money. Rumor had it he was raking in more than he was putting back into the organization, the same charge levied against Naimoli.

The former was a complete fabrication while the latter was dead on.

Sternberg dressed up the pig known as the Trop, moved spring training out of St. Petersburg, which begins next year, and was looking to finish the job taking the team out of town by daring to open up a new market and playing three games in Orlando. Stu wanted to partner with a mouse.

Yeah, they sure had it right, didn't they?

The American League is potentially wide open once you look past Boston. Should the Rays make their way north of last place this year to third, or dare I say second, you can bet your last dollar you will hear the tidal wave of "I told you so."

There were 4,124 in Hershey, Pennsylvania who saw Wilt Chamberlain score 100 points. 23,154 actually witnessed Roger Maris hit his 61st homer off Tracy Stallard at Yankee Stadium.

32,026 were at Shea Stadium on a beautiful Father's Day as Jim Bunning hurled a perfect game.

Today there are hundreds of thousands who say they were at one of those events and I would not be surprised if there were claims some saw all three (Chamberlain's record night came against the New York Knicks).

Expect that same kind of reaction now that the Rays are one step closer to their intended target - become good and then maintain it.

By the way, the rose-colored glasses I was accused of wearing were sold on eBay. I believe it was to a Yankees' fan.

Ted Fleming, the manager of TBSN Radio 510, has been covering the sports scene in the Tampa Bay area for the last decade via radio and print. His radio show is syndicated by the Black Athletes Sports Network live daily for two hours, starting at 11:00 A.M. Additionally, he is a stringer for the PA SportsTicker and has previously worked for WEEI in Boston, ESPN 1050 in New York and Metro Sports. You can reach him by sending an email to ted@tbsnradio510.com.

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