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Big words for small business

Managing general partner Vince Naimoli says Tampa Bay area businesses need to get on the ball.

With Opening Day 1998 little more than a year away, Naimoli said he is unhappy with the response from area merchants. He said he doesn't understand why stores are not stocking up on Rays merchandise, why area businesses are not posting signs and countdown to Opening Day clocks, why hotels and motels are not buying season tickets and planning promotions.

"People just don't appreciate how big this is going to be," he said. "Then the tidal wave is going to hit and people will say they wish they had been prepared."

Naimoli said the response to luxury suite sales and sponsorships _ essentially from the area's larger corporations _ has been strong. It is the perceived lack of interest from smaller businesses that seems to have caught his eye.

"They have a chance to make some money on this, but it has to be on their own initiative," he said. "We can't do it for them."

For example, Naimoli wondered why area stores don't have much Devil Rays merchandise on display yet stock many items from other teams. "We get complaints from people all the time that they can't buy our merchandise, and they're right," he said.

The Rays might share some of that blame. While Tropicana Field will feature a 12,000-square foot merchandise store open year-round, the team has no retail outlets of its own in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties. Merchandise is sold through a catalog and a Sarasota store, though a number of items will be available during exhibition games at Al Lang Stadium and the Huggins-Stengel Complex. Arrangements also have been made for P.S. Contemporary Cards and Gifts, 111 Second Ave. NE in downtown St. Petersburg, to stock official team merchandise.

"The irony to me is that we're doing everything we can to get ready, to get the team ready and the staff ready," Naimoli said. "The papers certainly have been writing it up, so it's no secret. People out there just don't get it."

SPRING FLING: The Rays are drafting a detailed list of improvements they would like to see St. Petersburg make to the three spring training facilities. In return for the work, the Rays would sign a lease extension and be willing to take on some of the costs the city now handles in operating the facilities (likely the maintenance), Naimoli said. The Rays also want to find a way to expand Al Lang Stadium, by perhaps as much as 3,000 seats (upping its capacity to about 10,000). "We've got to come up with some way to fit more people in for next year," Naimoli said.

GOOD PRESS: Matt White is just 18 and won't throw his first pitch as a professional until this afternoon, but that didn't stop Baseball America magazine from rating him fourth best on its list of top 100 prospects. White ranked ahead of a number of players expected to start in the major leagues this season, including Boston SS Nomar Garciaparra (No. 10), Seattle OF Jose Cruz Jr. (12) and Philadelphia 3B Scott Rolen (13), and was one slot ahead of Arizona 1B Travis Lee. "That's a pretty good honor, but it's just someone's opinion," White said. Pitcher Bobby Seay was ranked 82nd. With two prospects in the list, the Rays are ahead of the Angels, Mariners and Rangers.

MORE PRESS: No. 1 draft pick Paul Wilder was ranked sixth in Sports Illustrated's list of the best power-hitting prospects in the minor leagues, despite hitting only three home runs in his first season. 3B prospect Doug Johnson was ranked 44th.

HOO-RAYS: Naimoli and GM Chuck LaMar will attend the Mexico City Tigers' season opener this week. Orlando Rays merchandise _ including three different hat styles _ is available at Tinker Field or by calling (407) 649-RAYS. Work has started on tearing up the floor of Tropicana Field to accommodate the all-dirt basepaths.