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Rays recipe: Pinch of local, but go easy

Now batting for your Tampa Bay Devil Rays ... No. 12 ... Waaaaaade Boggs. (Insert thunderous applause here).

You can see it now. The fantasy has begun to take form, and the faces look familiar.

This is not a dream. This can happen. Wade Boggs, line-drive machine, is there for the asking. His charge toward 3,000 hits can be yours to see. The final steps toward the Hall of Fame can walk through Tampa Bay.

From here, it's a pretty sight.

This is what happens now. We are less than two weeks from the expansion draft, with free-agent signings to follow. For the first time, we can imagine who the players in the home uniforms will be. For the first time, we can match player and position with some sense of what might happen.

As for Boggs, he could hit third.

He is 39, you know. And this is a team that will be built around youth and prospects. Still, this somehow seems to fit. There have to be some veterans in the lineup. There have to be some players who can give fans a moment. Somebody

has to play third base.

Why not Boggs? He isn't going to cost a lot of money. He's going to flirt with .300. And, sometime in 1999, he's going to give Tampa Bay a week of national publicity when he gets his 3,000th hit.

Granted, tie goes to the young players. And if the Rays can get Chipper Jones instead, then forget I said anything.

Now batting for your Tampa Bay Devil Rays ... No. 27 ... Freddddddddd McGriff. (Insert wild cheering here).

For those of us who are romantics, the geography is a nice touch. There are players, such as Boggs and McGriff and pitcher Dwight Gooden, who grew up around here. For the fan, it would be sweet to see them tip their hats to the home folks.

For the team, however, this has to rank as interesting trivia. The Rays should not spend a spare second considering where a player grew up, only how much he can help the team do the same.

But as ballplayers, Boggs and McGriff and Gooden provide interesting choices.

McGriff can be had in the expansion draft, in any round you want to name. The Braves seem more eager than concerned someone might take McGriff and his $5-million contract.

He still can drive the ball. McGriff's bat doesn't seem as quick as it was, but he can hit in the middle of most lineups. The question here is harsher: Is he worth the cash?

But how about this for a hypothesis: Say McGriff goes undrafted in the expansion draft. Say the Braves still want to get rid of him. Say John Schuerholz calls his old buddy Chuck LaMar and offers a trade. In exchange for a prospect, the Braves will pay half of McGriff's salary.

Then the prospect gets interesting. Maybe the batting order, too.

Now batting for your Tampa Bay Devil Rays ... No. 5 ... Don-zelllllllll McDonald (insert sounds of fans looking at each other and asking "Who?").

We interrupt this column to inject reality. Players such as McDonald, the minor-league prospect for the Yankees, is going to be of much more interest to the Rays than big names. They are buying into the future, not the past.

But this is a different era of expansion, and you can envision a lot of scenarios that would land the Rays players. What if the Marlins were serious about dumping salaries and approached Gary Sheffield about waiving his no-trade clause? What if the Yankees would help pay Kenny Rogers' way out of town? What about Dante Bichette and Eric Karros in the expansion draft? What about Brady Anderson and Dean Palmer in free agency?

The guess is the Rays will not go crazy with veterans, but two or three in the expansion draft, two or three in free agency sounds like a nice mix. It provides leadership and trade possibilities, and it keeps the seats warm for prospects.

It also allows fans to imagine. To study the mock expansion drafts, to scour the free- agent list, to conjure trades to improve the home team.

Around here, it doesn't feel so much like a dream any more. It feels like ... baseball.

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