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Portrait of a franchise as an expansion team

As we watch our children grow, every step somehow fascinates.

It's like that with Tampa Bay's baseball babes. Every twitch is eyed, analyzed, digested and critiqued.

Seeing the Devil Rays develop legs, arms, minds and personalities. Crawling, then walking. Eventually running, we trust. Straining to overcome and outlast the predictable stumbles of youth.

Someday, if Tampa Bay gets sports-lucky for a change, we will observe Rays maturing into a successful adult of a franchise, a group that consistently entertains, wins a majority of games, develops a far-flung positive reputation and makes us proud for generations.

Ah, a family can dream . . .

Saturday was one of those little, note-in-the-hometown-diary Devil Rays crawls. Growing a bit in Florida's springtime sunshine.

Eighty-nine ballplayers in black-and-white Tampa Bay uniforms, blessed with varying skills and promise but hardly any worldly fame. Running, throwing, hitting and chasing dreams at Huggins-Stengel Field.

Far from Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards and other imposing arenas of this expansion club's looming American League existence, boyish Rays worked to mold, learn, improve and impress.

Older men with clipboards were making comments, offering help and taking notes. They are coaches, managers and personnel operatives from the expensive, mandatory farm system the Devil Rays must operate.

A few weeks from now, some of these 89 will be playing in the South Atlantic League at Charleston, S.C., for a Tampa Bay affiliate nicknamed RiverDogs. Others will stay in St. Petersburg as Florida State League participants. Class A becomes their crib. Meanwhile, some of Saturday's dreamers soon will disappear, having been told they don't fit in Tampa Bay's baseball future.

In an orderly, surprisingly handsome locker room, there are cubicles assigned to prospects with names like Shinar, DeLeon, White, Ybarra, Box, Aquino, and Seay.

Silver equipment trunks are aligned with military precision, waiting for the time that Devil Rays make big-time road trips to Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, Oakland and other far-away places.

There's no snuff or chew material in sight, due to professional baseball law that bans tobacco use by minor leagues. A decision that merits promotion to the majors.

Outside on the grass, five kids are off to the side, working to strengthen bodies. They stretch, they flex and they lift. No barbells are available, but they use inner tubes filled with sand, wrapping them around shoulders while doing power squats. "We have," says Rays GM Chuck LaMar, "exercise machines on the way."

Everything takes time.

Stately palms peek over the outfield fence, along with white oleanders that are gorgeous in March. Babe Ruth once refused to shag baseballs in that outfield, fearful of being chased by an alligator from a nearby pond.

Huggins-Stengel Field, named for two great and long-dead managers of Yankees who constantly ruled the World Series, is a sweet patch of St. Petersburg earth that flowers with baseball history.

Joe DiMaggio used to rip doubles down these baselines in training camps of the New York Yankees. Tom Seaver pitched from these mounds.

This rather unexpansive facility, a lasting reminder of what Miller Huggins and Casey Stengel were about, rests beneath wondrous old trees and a towering Fifth Street North water tank. Serving new Devil Rays after a proud past that has included a life not only with New York's historic Yanks but also another with Mets who showed up on this land for their memorable if infamous debut season of 1962.

By early afternoon Saturday, about 300 citizens had perched on Huggins-Stengel's aluminum bleachers, watching Rays in an exhibition game against Philadelphia Phillies wanna-bes.

More eyes taking in Tampa Bay's baseball babes, growing in pursuit of a big-league opener now 386 days away. That will come at Tropicana Field, maybe a mile away from Huggins-Stengel, but for some of these kids it'll be a journey never to be completed.

This afternoon at 1, beneath that water tank on Fifth Street at 13th Avenue, the Devil Rays will be pitching Matt White, an 18-year-old of such acclaim that he's costing the Tampa Bay franchise a stunning $10-million up front.

Admission, for now, is free.