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Blame game all that's left

Oh. So this is what they mean by "going ugly early."

In a weird, twisted way, you really have to hand it to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and not just because everyone else does. The impressive thing about the Rays is not merely how bad they have revealed themselves to be. It is how swiftly it has occurred.

It is still May, for goodness' sake, and already they are maddening and frustrating and, sadly, forgettable. It is as if a franchise had spread its wings and stepped from the cliff, only to realize, nope, it isn't ready to fly after all. Followed, of course, by falling and splatting.

How did this happen? How did the Rays go from promise to non-delivery to the most disappointing team in all of major-league (and most of minor-league, too, I'd wager) baseball? When has last place cost so darned much?

And, of course, the big question: Who is to blame?

This is where we have come with the Bedeviled Rays. We are ready to line up the usual suspects, the manager and the general manager and the closer and the slugger and everyone else. It is time to dust for fingerprints and find the party responsible.

In professional sports, this is the law of the jungle: Failure devours everyone. It consumes good men, dedicated men, bright men. There is nothing personal about it, there is nothing complicated. As long as losing endures, no one connected with it can.

Which brings us to the current climate with the Rays, where people are talking about Larry Rothschild's head as if it were a trophy, where other people defend him by pointing to Chuck LaMar, where people defend him by pointing to Roberto Hernandez and Jose Canseco and the rest of the lineup.

Blame Rothschild. Blame LaMar. Blame the players. Blame Tropicana. Blame the catwalks. Blame the uniforms. Blame the Democrats. Blame the Republicans. Blame society. Blame the media. The heck with it, blame me.

That's the hardest thing about this team. Fingering the culprit. The Rays have been awful beyond their injuries, beyond a bad start, beyond an extended slump. Yes, they have had injuries. But injuries, anticipating them and reacting to them, is the difference between winning and losing. And consider this: Juan Guzman was 11-12 last year; Wilson Alvarez was 9-9. It isn't exactly as if the Rays are missing Maddux and Glavine. And here's a question: If the injuries weren't enough to spare fired pitching coach Rick Williams, why are they a factor for anyone else?

That said, what are you going to do?

Already, the talk has begun on whether Rothschild will be fired, and whether he should be.

This shouldn't surprise anyone, not even the thin-skins of the Rays' organization. History tells us that when the ship is sinking, the manager is usually the first guy tossed overboard. The truth is the Rays' problems are bigger than Rothschild, who is a good guy who knows baseball and works hard at it. But other good, bright men have been sacrificed to failure, too, often when the losing was not their fault.

Is Rothschild a good manager? The bare, honest truth is this: We don't know. He has neither an outstanding resume nor outstanding results, and he seems to drive some fans crazy with his passive face and monotone voice. Rothschild works hard at an even-keel persona, but when losing continues, that tends to work against a manager.

Fans want to see fire. They want to see a manager beat up a water cooler like Larry Bowa did or even a pitcher like Billy Martin did. Maybe it's like a falling man flapping his arms. It doesn't necessarily help but, at this point, can it hurt? (Personally, I'd like to see Rothschild alter the order of his starting rotation to the point where it included Pedro Martinez.)

Should Rothschild be fired? Ask yourself this: What happens if the Rays do? Does the next guy suddenly motivate these players into something better than we have seen? Or do we get more of the same? The way you answer those questions should determine what you think of Rothschild's future.

So is the fault one of team construction? Do you shift the blame from Rothschild to LaMar? Some of it, sure. LaMar is the architect here and, as such, the last line of responsibility. His job is to be the Rays' stockbroker, to decide which players to invest in with an eye on how much return they will bring. To be truthful, most of us wanted to see the Rays make a run at something better this year, and most of us would have traded for Castilla and re-signed Canseco. But the Rays have overpaid. When a team is in the top 10 in payroll, it shouldn't be scraping the bottom of the standings.

Same question: Is LaMar a good general manager? You can quibble at his contracts or frown at his trades, but you probably get the same answer: It's too soon to tell. But that's the rub. The more the team loses, the harder it is to wait for the answers.

Were the expectations too high? Naturally, this one will come up. It's a way of saying "Don't blame us for fooling you, blame you for fooling you." Remember, it was the team owner who said he would be disappointed if his team wasn't in the wild-card race, and the players who talked about various degrees of wonderfulness. Yeah, maybe some of us wanted too much too soon, but no matter what level you thought this team would reach, let's face it, it hasn't. Ask yourself a simple question: Is this team overachieving or underachieving? The answer is obvious.

Whose fault is it? It's everyone's. It's an Agatha Christie novel; there are a lot of fingerprints on the weapon.

And unless things get better, the rest of the summer will be spent sorting the villains from the victims.

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