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THE STANDOUTS

Chuck LaMar wasn't kidding. When he started talking about assembling a list of candidates to be the Devil Rays' manager, he said he would not be bound by baseball tradition or antiquated prerequisites.

He would not rely on retreads, insist on experience or settle for a mere caretaker. His candidates would represent diverse backgrounds. There would be some surprises. The only thing they would have in common was LaMar's belief they could do the job, and do it well.

Ten candidates have been paraded to town, wined, dined and then, in turn, mined for their thoughts on how they would run an expansion team. Barring a significant surprise, phase one of the interview process is over.

Thirty-three days after the first interview, and only 150 days before the first regular-season game, LaMar and the Rays are on the verge of a decision.

By tonight, or certainly Monday, the list will be trimmed to three or four finalists. By the end of the week, expect the first manager to be toasted, and toasting, around town.

Of the 10, each has enough positives to someday manage in the majors, or in the case of Hal McRae to manage again. But this does not seem to be the right time or the right team for Cubs Triple-A manager Tim Johnson, Expos bench coach Jim Tracy, Yankees batting coach Chris Chambliss, Orioles batting coach Rick Down or McRae.

Based on conversations, observations, vibes, buzz, karma, body language and other assorted speculation, it appears the finalists will come from among Tigers bench coach Larry Parrish, Red Sox bench coach Grady Little, Marlins bench coach Jerry Manuel, Marlins pitching coach Larry Rothschild and Indians scout Ted Simmons.

The final decision apparently will come down to Parrish, Rothschild and Simmons. It is not going to be easy.

LaMar, player personnel director Bill Livesey and assistant general managers Bart Braun and Scott Proefrock have handled the interviews, three-hour sessions that included psychological testing. But the winnowing to the short list and the subsequent interviews and hiring will feature a new dynamic. Managing general partner Vince Naimoli, no doubt invigorated from watching Notre Dame's tense win over Navy on Saturday, is eager to join the process.

The choice is going to be tough. The man hired has to manage not only the game but the players' egos and the public perception of the new team. Personality and presence are going to be factors. Deciding whether to hit-and-run on a 2-and-1 count is not going to be the toughest thing he does on a daily basis. Other issues, such as contract length, salary and family considerations, could come into play.

So, here is a ranking of the five leading candidates, with the Times' odds on each being named manager.

GRADY LITTLE, RED SOX BENCH COACH: Little was considered the early favorite because he worked for LaMar in the Braves minor-league organization and because he was successful there, winning three championships. He got major-league experience in 1996 as bullpen coach with the Padres and last season with Boston. He is a little stiff around the media and has not had the opportunity to prove he can motivate major-league players. Little would be a safe choice and probably will manage somewhere someday, but the Rays have found some candidates with a higher upside. Odds: 25-1.

JERRY MANUEL, MARLINS BENCH COACH: If there were one candidate who had everything on his resume LaMar was looking for, it just might be Manuel. He played in the majors. He was a scout. He was a minor-league instructor, field coordinator and successful manager. He coached in the major leagues for two of the game's best managers, Felipe Alou and Jim Leyland. He is sharp and well-spoken, though perhaps a bit on the quiet side. Again, he would be a safe choice. Again, he probably will manage at some point. Again, there are others who might do better here. Odds: 20-1.

LARRY ROTHSCHILD, MARLINS PITCHING COACH: LaMar is comfortable with Rothschild. They grew up together in pro baseball when both worked for the Reds in the late 1980s and spent hours talking baseball, often at the Plant City Holiday Inn during instructional league.

Rothschild, 43, has never managed but has proven himself a successful pitching coach and correctly points out that managing the people is just as much part of the job as managing the game. A good bench coach, and there are plenty available, can help with strategy. He is sharp and well-spoken and LaMar calls him a "leader of men."

But history is not rich with good pitching coaches becoming good managers. Roger Craig wasn't bad, but some have been terrible _ Marcel Lachemann with the Angels, Ray Miller with the Twins, Phil Regan with the Orioles.

Rothschild has a thorough background. He has been in the minor leagues, he has been part of winning teams and he has expansion experience.

One thing he doesn't have is name recognition to the average fan. While the Marlins' championship may have raised his profile, his major-league pitching career consisted of 8 innings in seven games, and he doesn't have the presence of a former big-leaguer. You certainly wouldn't pick him out of the crowd at a coffee shop on a Sunday morning. Odds: 4-1.

LARRY PARRISH, TIGERS BENCH COACH: Some people who remember Parrish from his playing days are surprised he has risen this far this fast. But not those who work with him.

"I think he's going to be a tremendous manager," Tigers GM Randy Smith said. "He's a guy who can communicate with the players and commands their respect, and I really like the way he runs a game."

Parrish, a Florida native, played 15 seasons in the majors, coached and managed parts of four seasons in the minor leagues (winning a championship at Double-A Jacksonville in 1996), then joined the Tigers' major-league staff under Buddy Bell for the 1997 season.

Parrish, 43, offers the Rays an interesting combination of an accomplished past and a bright future. He has name recognition and presence from his playing career with Montreal and Texas. And while it is not a certainty, he has the chance to develop into a star manager, and the Rays could grow right along with him. Odds: 3-1.

TED SIMMONS, INDIANS SCOUT: By far the most intriguing and, despite what LaMar says, surprising candidate. He was an All-Star and a bit of an eccentric during a 21-year playing career, then made the somewhat surprising move into management, serving first as farm director of the Cardinals, then general manager of the Pirates.

He resigned for health and other reasons but quickly got back into the game as a special-assignment scout for the Indians and says he is in great shape.

Simmons, 48, has never managed and his name has not come up in connection with any openings. But he says he has always thought about it, that he is up for the daily grind and that an expansion situation is especially appealing.

Simmons is considered to have a brilliant baseball mind. His erudite personality may be another issue. He is not your grandfather's baseball manager, or even your father's.

But for an organization that _ from scouting to player acquisition to staff hirings _ prides itself on finding undiscovered gems, Simmons could be the mother lode. The potential is there to be spectacular. Odds: 2-1.

IN CONCLUSION: The true short list looks like it will be Rothschild, Parrish and Simmons, and any of the three could do the job. Experience, it turns out, really wasn't a criteria. None has managed in the majors, and only Parrish has managed at all.

LaMar will make the final decision, but Naimoli is going to have his say. He may want a bigger name than Rothschild or be uncomfortable turning the team over to a pitching coach. He may think Parrish needs more time as a big-league coach. He may think Simmons doesn't conform to the Rays' straight-laced image.

If LaMar truly wants Simmons, the challenge might be in convincing Naimoli that Simmons is the right man. If he does, and as general manager he should have that right, the job will be Simmons'. If not, Parrish's drive from Haines City could be quite a ride.

Topkin rates the field

Grady Little

25-1

Jerry Manuel

20-1

Larry Rothschild

4-1

Larry Parrish

3-1

Ted Simmons

2-1

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