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Bumpy ride smooths out

Paul Wilder is getting used to the cheap hotels. He doesn't mind the long bus rides, the fast-food meals, the tiny, dimly lighted parks.

That's life in the minor leagues, and right now Wilder is happy to be living it. After battling injuries in his first two seasons, Wilder, the Devil Rays' first No. 1 draft choice, is healthy. He's playing outfield and batting cleanup for the Charleston RiverDogs, the Rays' Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League.

This is Wilder's first full-season team after playing in the Gulf Coast League and with Princeton in the Appalachian League. Wilder is enjoying the ride.

"This is pretty much what I expected," he said. "I knew that it wouldn't be easy. But I don't worry about where I'm playing. I'll let the Devil Rays decide that. I'm just worrying about getting better."

Before this season, Wilder's main concern was staying healthy. In 1996 he was limited to being a designated hitter in the GCL because of right elbow problems. He hit .207 in 53 games but had a team-high 67 strikeouts.

Last year he suffered through hip and groin problems in spring training. He then missed the last month of the season with Princeton because of a stress fracture in his lower back. He hit .206 in 44 games with Princeton.

This season Wilder has yet to miss a game. Through Sunday he was hitting .240 with four home runs and 45 strikeouts in 30 games.

"I feel pretty good right now," Wilder said. "I haven't had any problems. It feels good to play a full season and be healthy. I got off to a good start, which is something I haven't done in the past."

Aside from the injuries, Wilder has had to get used to pitching that is is much different from what he faced at Cary High in North Carolina, where he hit .450 with 10 homers and 24 RBI in 24 games.

These pitchers actually throw curves and changeups.

"This is a totally different game," he said. "The pitching is so much better. That was the biggest adjustment. Lately I've been getting a lot of curveballs, so I have to be patient. I've had a problem with swinging at bad pitches and getting myself out. I've got to stay back and be patient."

Wilder likely will spend the entire season in Charleston, although there is an outside chance he could be promoted to St. Petersburg. But now he plays in front of family and friends, who are within driving distance.

"My parents come every weekend," he said. "They have a chance to see me play all the time. I'm fortunate."

Wilder's roadblocks

JUNE 4, 1996: Selected as Rays' first draft choice.

JUNE 18, 1996: In first workout at Huggins-Stengel Complex, hits 407-foot shot to centerfield on first swing.

JULY 3, 1996: Sore right elbow limits Wilder to designated-hitter duties for rest of Gulf Coast League season. Post-season tests reveal tendinitis and a strain.

MARCH 1997: Slowed by hip and groin injuries, which limit spring-training appearances. Assigned to extended spring training.

JULY 5, 1997: Suspended for four games while with Princeton for starting a brawl. Chased Burlington (N.C.) pitcher Antonio Vasquez with a bat after Vasquez threw at him.

AUG. 21, 1997: Sidelined for rest of Appalachian League season with a stress fracture in lower back.

JAN. 27, 1998: Is minor-league invitee to big-league spring training.

MARCH 30, 1998: Assigned to Class A Charleston of South Atlantic League.

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