Obviously, 1998 is going to be big for the Devil Rays. It's not every year you get to start major-league play, unveil a redesigned state-of-the-art stadium and become the biggest thing to hit Tampa Bay since grouper sandwiches.
But 1997 isn't going to be a bad warmup act.
"I don't think there's any question 1997 will be as busy a year any of us in the organization will have experienced in professional baseball," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said.
"I think if we look back in five years' time at what we accomplished in the organization in 1997, it will be filled with important dates."
There will be several red-letter days _ the hiring of a manager, the release of the 1998 schedule, the selecting of players in the expansion draft, from which many of the players on the inaugural 1998 roster will come.
Those events are months away. But the Rays have already been busy.
More than 90 minor-league players have been working out daily for the past month under the guidance of 18 coaches at the team's first-ever spring training camp, with two squads leaving this weekend to begin the first seasons of Class A minor-league play.
A team of veteran scouts has been canvassing Florida and Arizona all spring, collecting data and opinions on every player in preparation for the expansion draft.
The Rays will sign their first major-league free agent this year, though the rules are such that they probably won't be able to do it officially until just before the Nov. 18 expansion draft, when they technically will be allowed to fill a major-league roster. They also are likely to make their first trade this year. LaMar said they could trade minor-leaguer for minor-leaguer right now but can't acquire major-leaguers until they have roster spots for them.
As the season goes on, the files for the expansion draft will get thicker. And LaMar's list of potential managers will get shorter. His plan is to wait until after the season _ or just before the end, depending on the circumstance _ to begin interviewing and hopes to pick his man in October. Also to be hired, or promoted from the current staff, is a five-man major-league coaching staff, plus a manager and another coaching staff for Triple-A Durham, which also begins play next season.
"The date we hire a manager will be a significant date in the establishment of our franchise," LaMar said.
Another significant date will fall between now and then. That is the day LaMar will sit down with managing general partner Vince Naimoli and learn his player payroll budget for 1998 and the financial approach the team will take in its formative years.
The minor-league system is essentially in place, with Durham coming aboard next year and Double-A Orlando in 1999.
On the field, the Rays will monitor closely the progress of their two prized pitching prospects, Matt White and Bobby Seay, along with 1996 No. 1 draft pick Paul Wilder and a number of others.
The Rays say they are conservative in their placements, so most of their top prospects will begin this season at Charleston, S.C., in the South Atlantic League. Still, the minor-league evaluation staff will have plenty to do.
"We want to continue to develop and add to the foundation of the minor-league system," director of player personnel Bill Livesey said. "And for the first time, we'll really be casting our eyes upward and be thinking when some of these kids will be able to play in the big leagues."
While all this work is going on, the amateur scouting staff is looking to the even more distant future, watching high school and college games to get ready for the annual June draft.
"Not only are those dates important every year, but we've got to continue to sign and improve upon the players that we sign," LaMar said. "There's no question in our mind this year's draft can be more productive than the last."
This also will be a year of growth in the offices. The business staff is expanding, a game-day operation must be put in place, and radio and TV broadcasters will be hired.
Key 1997 dates
APRIL 3: Opening of minor-league season.
JUNE 3-5: Amateur draft.
JUNE 17: Opening of short-season schedule.
EARLY OCTOBER: Hiring of major-league manager, coaching staff and Triple-A staff.
LATE OCTOBER/EARLY NOVEMBER: Release of 1998 schedule, sale of individual game tickets.
NOV. 18: Major-league expansion draft.
EARLY DECEMBER: Winter meetings, Rule V minor-league draft.
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St. Petersburg Devil Rays
CLASS A ADVANCED FLORIDA STATE LEAGUE
Staff: Bill Evers, manager; Chuck Hernandez, pitching coach; Bill Hatcher, coach.
Stadium: Al Lang Stadium, 180 Second Ave. SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.
Tickets: Call (813) 822-3384.
Charleston River Dogs
CLASS A SOUTH ATLANTIC LEAGUE
Staff: Scott Fletcher, manager; Dennis Rasmussen, pitching coach; Brad Rippelmeyer, coach.
Stadium: New Joseph P. Riley Park, 701 Rutledge Ave., Charleston, SC 29413.
Tickets: Call (803) 723-7241.
Hudson Valley Renegades
CLASS A SHORT SEASON NEW YORK-PENN LEAGUE
Staff: Julio Garcia, manager; Greg Harris, pitching coach; Steve Livesey, coach.
Stadium: Dutchess Stadium, Route 9D, Wappingers Falls, NY 12590.
Tickets: Call (914) 838-0094
Princeton Devil Rays
ROOKIE LEAGUE APPALACHIAN LEAGUE
Staff: Charlie Montoyo, manager; Milt Hill, pitching coach; Mike Tosar, coach.
Staium: Hunnicut Field, P.O. Box 5646, Princeton, WV 24740.
Tickets: Call (304) 487-2000.
GCL Devil Rays
GULF COAST LEAGUE
Staff: Bobby Ramos, manager; Mitch Lukevics, pitching coach; Edwin Rodriguez, coach.
Stadium: Al Lang Stadium, 180 SEcond Ave. SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.
Tickets: No admission charge.
(A Cubs affiliate in 1997 and 1998)
CLASS AA SOURTHERN LEAGUE
Stadium: Tinker Field, 287 S Tampa Ave., Orlando, FL 32805.
Tickets: Call (407) 245-2827.