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Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria has new life, new expectations

Turn on the bright lights of stardom and some players scatter into the shadows.

Others like to dabble in the glow, nibbling at the good parts before disappearing. Others scurry around the edges.

Then there is Evan Longoria, who seems prepared to consume stardom as comfortably as a routine grounder.

Even at 23, even in his second season with the Rays, Longoria seems at ease with himself. There are no jitters, no awe, no backing away from expectations. The Rays are counting on him to be an impact player? Yeah. Longoria is counting on it, too.

"I can hit for a better average (than last year's .272)," Longoria said. "I should hit at least .280. That isn't hard to do, in my eyes. I think I'll hit 30 (home runs) if I don't miss a month and a half. As long as I'm in my prime, I should hit 30 and (get) 100 (RBIs).

"That's just a personal goal. Who is to say if I'll get there or not? You can't guarantee results. But everyone has numbers in their mind. I don't think it's that big a deal to throw them out there and say, 'This is what I want.' "

When you remember the way he kicked in the door on the major leagues, Longoria could be accused of being conservative with his projections. He played in only 122 games as a rookie, and he still hit 27 home runs and had 85 RBIs. All in all, it wasn't a bad way for a guy to spend a season.

And no, the past few weeks weren't a bad way for Longoria to spend an offseason, either. What exactly is the offseason record for grins?

Yes, that was Longoria in golf's Bob Hope Classic. That was Longoria at Hugh Hefner's VIP table at the Playboy Club in Las Vegas. That was Longoria hosting (with Cliff Floyd) a Super Bowl party. That was Longoria in a headline of The Onion, an online satire site.

Ask yourself: Does the notion of celebrity bother Longoria?

"It wasn't all fun," he said. "It probably looked like it from the outside, but a lot of it was business. I felt as stressed out in the offseason as in the season. I just closed on a place in Tampa, and a lot of the offseason was spent finding a place and getting it set up.

"I'm comfortable with (celebrity), but I'm not a person who is into the whole Hollywood scene."

Still, the world has changed around Longoria. This time last year, the question was how long he was going to serve in the minors before his team called him up. This year? He just has to get ready for opening day.

"I'm already having an internal battle," he said. "I want to do the same things as last year and push myself to the limits, but at the same time, my body is telling me we just played in the World Series not too long ago. It's a little bit different."

Where can Longoria get better? He could hit better at home (.253, 40 points lower than on the road). He could get off to a better start (he was hitting .210 on May 14). Yes, he could do better in the World Series (1-for-20).

For Longoria, however, it starts simply. For one thing, he has to hit left-handers better. Last year he hit .242 against lefties (.282 vs. righties.)

"That was a disgrace," Longoria said. "I couldn't believe that."

Despite it all, he carried himself like one of those rare young players who is destined to be a big deal in the game. And yes, his teammates see it, too. Ask them, for instance, what it would be like to be Longoria for a weekend.

"It would be an absolute blast," said reliever Troy Percival, 39. "First of all, it wouldn't hurt to get out of bed. For the first time I'd actually be an athlete. The other reasons I'll leave alone.

"Think of it. To never be overmatched. To wake up in the morning and know you're as good or better than anyone out there; all you have to do is perform. But I guarantee you, on that weekend, I'd probably be doing what he's doing. I'd probably be working on baseball. He's put in a lot of work. He's probably sitting in front of his mirror working on his swing."

Reliever J.P. Howell has a different idea of how to spend a body-swapping weekend.

"I'm going to Vegas with it, man," said Howell, 25. "You'd have some loot to play with it. Do it big one weekend. That's what I would do.

"If you're Evan Longoria, it's a little different when you're in Vegas. You're in the VIP room at the Palms, you're hanging out with the Maloofs (the family that owns the Palms), you're getting picked up in a nice limo."

Nothing wrong with fun. Before he is done, however, Longoria says he wants his name to mean a little more. Over the years, Tampa Bay has been lucky with good-guy athletes, players such as Warrick Dunn, Derrick Brooks, Vinny Lecavalier, John Lynch, Mike Alstott and the rest. Longoria says he wishes to do things like they've done.

"I'd like to use my status to do some good," Longoria said. "Somewhere along the line, I want to start a foundation in the Tampa Bay area. I'd like to do some things to build the city up. Not everyone is able to put their name on something. That's the kind of opportunity I have.

"I won't name names, but there are celebrities and athletes who have big names, and they just tarnish them. They don't use their names for anything. I always told myself, if I ever became famous, I would use whatever celebrity power I had for good."

It has started so well for Longoria. It has begun so fast.

Stay tuned. There is more to come.

Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria has new life, new expectations 02/21/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 22, 2009 7:58am]
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