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Yankee rivalry? Well, not really

The crowds, relatively speaking, will be big and loud. So, too, will the owners.

Yankees-Rays get-togethers, like the three-game set starting tonight at Tropicana Field, may have the look, feel and, depending on the number of rude New Yorkers in the stands, sound of a rivalry, but it really isn't a rivalry.

Not according to Rays manager Hal McRae, anyway.

"The ingredients for a rivalry are not in place," McRae said.

Atop the list, McRae said, is the need for somewhat equal competition between the teams. The Yankees have won 46 of 64 games with the Rays.

"The expectations for the fans have to be about 50-50," McRae said. "I don't think the expectations are 50-50 when we play them."

Along with that, McRae said, you need fierce competition, a dislike for each other and some "rock 'em, sock 'em kind of baseball."

"That's what creates a rivalry, when it's going to be hard-fought, a nobody-knows-who's-going-to-win type thing, and you have a history of that," McRae said. "And when you've had a few fights and choice words and don't really like each other, that creates a rivalry. Or stars battling, like (Ted) Williams and (Joe) DiMaggio. They've got some stars and we've got some stars and who's going to outperform who and who's better than who. I think that's how rivalries are formed."

For Rays fans, a matchup with the Yankees, and their contingent of Tampa-based fans who suddenly appear, may be as close as it gets. Crowds in excess of 20,000 are expected tonight and Sunday, and the Rays could draw 30,000 Saturday with the opening of the upper desk (where reserved tickets are $10).

Even a mixed crowd will be enjoyable, McRae said.

"All players like to play before crowds," McRae said. "We're in the entertainment industry and it's tough to feel like you're entertaining when there's nobody there. So the bigger the crowd, the more excitement there is in the building."

TAKING A SWING: Greg Vaughn, out since June 22 with a bruised right shoulder, is hoping to return in the next two weeks. The outfielder took batting practice on the field Thursday for the first time since the injury and was encouraged. "It was a very positive day," trainer Jamie Reed said.

BIG RELIEF: McRae was pleased to get out of Boston with his bullpen in shape for the weekend: "That's almost a miracle after playing a doubleheader, giving up 22 runs and a starter (Joe Kennedy on Wednesday) going four innings."

TAKE THAT: The Rays said they didn't have any problem with Pedro Martinez hitting Ben Grieve with a pitch the inning after Luis De Los Santos threw up and in at Boston's Brian Daubach. "In my opinion they took care of it professionally and it was over," Rays catcher John Flaherty said.

MINOR MATTERS: Catcher Pete LaForest, who led the Double-A Southern League with 17 home runs, was promoted to Triple-A Durham. Yamid Haad was released. Jason Pridie, the second-round pick in the June draft, extended his hitting streak at Princeton (W.Va.) to 20 games, matching Carl Crawford for third-longest in organizational history, before going 0-for-3 Thursday night.

MISCELLANY: Second baseman Brent Abernathy, in a 3-for-48 slump, is scheduled to return to the Rays lineup tonight. Today is the last day to buy tickets for Sunday's fourth annual Dine with the Devil Rays event, which is sponsored by the Rays wives and benefits the Florida chapter of the ALS Foundation. Tickets are $125; call (813) 874-2122. The Rays were shut out for the 12th time, matching Kansas City for the major-league high.

_ MARC TOPKIN

TONIGHT: RAYS VS. YANKEES

WORTH NOTING: Mussina is 7-3 with a 3.69 ERA in 15 starts against the Rays. The losses have come at the Trop, where he has a 4.45 ERA. Sosa, a 24-year-old converted outfielder who was learning to pitch at Class A last season, has made three straight quality starts. He got his first major-league win Sunday. Gates open at 5:15 p.m. Fans can exchange Yankees shirts and caps for Rays gear with WDAE-AM 620 personalities at the rotunda entrance.

OUTTA LEFTFIELD

Hal McRae gets all kinds of interview requests. But Rays PR staffer Greg Landy brought him an interesting one Thursday afternoon: McRae's son Brian, a former major-leaguer, wanted to chat with the Rays manager on his MLB Radio show. "He's probably only calling because we won the last two," Hal McRae said.

Dollars and sense

The Rays will be at a significant financial disadvantage _ about a 10 times difference in payroll _ when they line up against the Yankees this weekend:

Pos. Yankees Rays

LF Rondell White, $4.5M Carl Crawford, $200,000

CF Bernie Williams, $12,357,143 Randy Winn, $960,000

RF Raul Mondesi, $11M Ben Grieve, $4M

3B Robin Ventura, $8.5M Jared Sandberg, $204,000

SS Derek Jeter, $14.6M Chris Gomez, $1M

2B Alfonso Soriano, $630,000 Brent Abernathy, $215,000

1B Jason Giambi, $10,428,571 Steve Cox, $280,000

C Jorge Posada, $7M Toby Hall, $210,000

P Mike Mussina, $11M Jorge Sosa, $200,000

DH Nick Johnson, $220,560 Aubrey Huff, $245,000

Total: $80,236,274 $7.514M

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