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It's not easy being Grieve

Ben Grieve isn't happy.

It's not a whole lot of fun to be Grieve these days. The designated hitter of the Devil Rays has become the designated scapegoat.

Booed each time his name is announced. Scolded recently in a very public manner by his manager. Abandoned, for the most part, by his own organization.

"I probably wouldn't be here now if they could get something for me (in a trade)," Grieve said. "But I haven't played well enough (for any team to be interested).

"I know I haven't played the way I'm capable of playing, or the way I expected to play. I know I'm not going to be back next year. I'm just here three more months and sometimes it's tough to come to the ballpark when you know you're not really a part of the future."

Not back? Ben, don't you believe the Rays will attempt to re-sign you when your contract expires at season's end?

"No," Grieve said. "I mean, isn't it pretty obvious?"

Grieve isn't feeling sorry for himself and he isn't looking for sympathy. He simply is telling the truth the way he sees it. He knows his days in Tampa Bay will end when the season is over, if not before.

Still, he shows up every day, puts in extra work in the batting cage and steps up to the plate hoping this at-bat will be the at-bat that snaps him out of his season-long slump.

His desire to win remains strong, he says. He really does care despite the perception he takes baseball as seriously as a backyard badminton game. He isn't playing just because it pays well (he is making $5.5-million this season).

"I really do love the game," Grieve, 27, said. "I know it doesn't look like it, or the fans may think I don't. But that's just my personality. I do like playing and I want to do well and have the team do well."

Here is Grieve _ son of a major-leaguer, the No. 2 overall pick, the former American League Rookie of the Year _ defending his love for baseball.

None of this was supposed to happen. When the Rays traded for Grieve in January 2001, they thought they were getting a player on the verge of stardom. Heck, he already was brushing up against it. The season before the Rays got him, Grieve batted .279 with 27 homers and 104 RBIs for Oakland.

Things, though, just never have clicked with the Rays. In his first two seasons he batted .257. He averaged 15 homers and 68 RBIs.

This season, he has bottomed out. A thumb infection sidelined him for 27 games. When he has been healthy, his numbers have been unhealthy. His average has dipped to .223. In 148 at-bats, he has but two homers and 15 RBIs.

In the midst of this, the incident.

Rays manager Lou Piniella confronted Grieve after he accepted a called third strike for the last out of a 4-3 loss June 26 to the Yankees. It turned into a he said/he said with Piniella, the favorite son of Tampa Bay, on one side and Grieve, the underachieving and unpopular player, on the other.

Piniella claims Grieve said, "It doesn't matter." Grieve said Piniella misquoted him. Grieve even went as far as to contact television stations and a Times reporter that night to tell his side of the story. Piniella never backed off what he said he heard.

It turned into a mess that hasn't been put to bed, and probably never will be.

A day after the incident, Piniella said, "As far as I'm concerned, it's over." And he hasn't addressed the Grieve situation since. Grieve admitted the next day that he was "sort of scared" to even approach his manager.

Whether Grieve truly cares about winning or baseball might be debated, but throughout his years in Oakland, his performance as a hitter could not be questioned. Now even that isn't true. These days, Grieve walks softly and carries a stick that fails nearly eight out of 10 times.

"Ben is probably our best guy in terms of drawing walks," Piniella said. "But Ben also chases too many bad pitches and that's why he has struggled."

That brings us to now: a man playing out the string until his contract expires or he is traded or released. Grieve, though, said he hasn't soured on his Tampa Bay experience, including his feelings toward the fans or the organization.

"It's probably more the other way around," Grieve said. "My numbers here have been (bad). I know that. It's like I'm satisfied. I'm not."

Tonight Grieve will return with the Rays to the scene of his glory days: Oakland. He has good memories of that bay area. One wonders what he will think of this bay area a year from now.