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Should he stay or go?

Lou Piniella doesn't want a change.

He just wants a chance.

When speculation came roaring out of New York last week that the Mets want to hire Piniella to replace Art Howe, it was easy to think there might be something to it.

Especially when owner Fred Wilpon started detailing prerequisites that sounded like a personal ad for Piniella ("has experience can manage in New York can deal with the media") and insisted cost _ such as, say, the nearly $8-million left on Piniella's contract _ would not be a problem.

Rumors flew, including the preposterous idea that the teams would trade managers. All theories premised that Piniella wants out of Tampa Bay. After one interview in which Piniella said nothing of the sort, one New York tabloid wrote: "He seemed to be silently screaming, "Get me out of here!'

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The popular theory was the Rays would be willing to let Piniella go, happy to unload his salary and pocket the savings, get a player or two in return, and hire a manager who is supposedly more suited to a young, developing team as a teacher. If you listened enough, you even heard names such as the highly respected, and available, Jimy Williams, who is well known to GM Chuck LaMar.

There are, however, a few problems with this thinking: Piniella doesn't really want to leave, and the Rays have no plans to let him.

Maybe coming home hasn't been as relaxing or rewarding as Piniella expected, but he relishes the opportunity to help make baseball successful in Tampa Bay.

More than anything, he wants the chance to win. His biggest concern when he came here _ after getting out of the last year in his contract in Seattle, it must be noted _ was whether the Rays were committed to winning. They told him they were, but haven't shown it with payrolls of less than $30-million his first two years, and plans for only a modest increase in 2005. By then, Piniella was hoping to have a $40-million-plus team that would be competing for a wild-card spot.

When Piniella and agent Alan Nero meet with team officials during the final homestand, they're not looking for a way out, but to find out what the future plans are. They may revisit commitments made when Piniella took the job and suggest he hasn't gotten all that was promised, but they want to explore how to make this work. If the New York rumors add urgency to the talks, that's okay, too.

Piniella's hope to add two top pitchers and two top hitters would cost at least $15-million, which means a payroll of around $40-million.

Will managing general partner Vince Naimoli, who has always claimed attendance drives payroll, agree to that much of an increase? Can he? And what of new general partner Stu Sternberg? Will he put some money in now, and perhaps increase the value of his investment, or is he waiting until 2007, when he is rumored to take over?

Bringing in Piniella, as Naimoli and LaMar have said often, was one of the most significant moves the organization has ever, or will ever, make. Letting him go, or driving him away, would be a monumental mistake, a massive step backward and an acknowledgment the Rays are not ready, or willing, to win.

They can't afford that.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: The Rays get a June weekend home series with the Cardinals and interleague visits from the Brewers and Marlins, according to a draft of the 2005 schedule, and will visit Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Florida. The Rays open with a 10-game homestand, starting against Toronto. The late-season look at B.J. Upton comes with a price _ he won't be eligible to win the 2005 rookie of the year award because he'll have gotten so many at-bats this year. The Rays are trying to get to the playoffs by getting out of the AL East. Naimoli says: "We campaign almost every day to get in a different division."

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