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Give kids a chance to grow

Now that Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford have arrived, there are certain issues of growth that must certainly be considered.

For instance, getting mentally prepared for the rough times ahead. Having faith in the abilities that got them here. Learning to leave yesterday behind so today is not in danger of being cheated.

Think you can handle that?

The best is yet to come. Remind yourself of that when Baldelli is swinging at sliders in the dirt and Crawford is running recklessly on the bases.

There will be times when they tickle your imagination, and other times when they will stretch your patience.

They are talented, confident and eager. They also are 21. And that may have a greater impact on their 2003 performances than any other factor.

To say Baldelli and Crawford have earned starting jobs is not the same as saying they are ready for those jobs.

Because, frankly, they are probably not.

They are among the best 21-year-old players around. Of that, there is no dispute. But there is a reason most 21-year-olds are riding buses in Double A or even college. It is simply too soon to expect them to survive here.

"The fans need to know letting them start opening day is not a move without risks, and it was not made without a complete analysis by the organization," general manager Chuck LaMar said.

"We know these young men are going to go through their struggles. But they have the intangibles to learn from those struggles and they will be better players in years two and three because of that."

A risk? Perhaps. But maybe not in ways you might imagine. The Rays are more concerned about the risk of perception. Of expectation.

The risk that fans will be disappointed with a batting average of, say, .223. Or with 16 home runs. Or 102 strikeouts. Which, incidentally, were Barry Bonds' numbers in 1986, when he came up with the Pirates at 21.

Any other risks, the Rays say, are minimal.

They are not concerned about damaging the psyche of a young player. These two, they will tell you, are stronger than that.

If their struggles become too great, they can be sent to Triple A. The Rays did that with Aubrey Huff and Toby Hall, and both returned as better players.

"I'm not talking about Baldelli or Crawford, I'm talking in general," manager Lou Piniella said. "But if a young guy comes up here and struggles and can't go back down and put it back together, well then you've got a question mark anyway."

In other words, any player who cannot handle an early disappointment may be too sensitive to ever handle the pressures of the majors.

"This is not for the weak-hearted up here," Piniella said.

That view may be a tad Machiavellian. There have been terrific talents in the past who have never recovered from early failures. Different personalities need different approaches. Some need to be pushed, others need to be coddled.

In this case, Piniella says Baldelli and Crawford are the type who can overcome setbacks along the way. And he has some experience in this matter.

Piniella was the manager of the Mariners when a 20-year-old shortstop named Alex Rodriguez hit .232 in 1995. The next year, A-Rod hit .358.

"One of the things you look for is makeup," Piniella said. "And both of these kids have real nice makeup. So did Alex."

But why, you may ask, do you even risk it?

For a team almost certainly heading toward last place in the American League East, why does it matter if Baldelli and Crawford are here opening day? Why not give them extra at-bats under less pressure at Durham?

The Rays begin the season with 13 of 16 games against the Red Sox and Yankees. That's a lot of at-bats against Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte.

My personal choice would have been to start them at Triple A just to avoid those 16 games.

So why the rush?

When the Rays looked at their roster and budget, they decided there wasn't much choice. Already, Baldelli and Crawford are the best outfielders in camp.

Maybe the Rays could have brought in Kenny Lofton for a year, but that was hardly appealing. Lofton would not have made any difference in the standings and he can be trouble in the clubhouse. In the end, it would have been a waste of money and taken at-bats from Baldelli or Crawford.

In essence, the Rays have turned the hands of the clock ahead. They are skipping the overture and heading straight into the performance.

These two players are the future of the franchise. One scout who has followed the team this spring said he would not be surprised to see either Baldelli or Crawford in an All-Star Game in the not-too-distant future.

Just remember that when you begin to doubt. When you wonder what the fuss was all about.

Because, trust me, it will happen.

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