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Piniella declares, "I'm staying here'

Manager Lou Piniella on Tuesday made his strongest statement yet regarding his future with the team, the same day the Devil Rays offered two-year contract extensions through 2006 to his coaching staff.

Piniella had previously said he plans to stick around, and he did not intend to reiterate. But when he noted his contract and the staff's would be on the same timetable if the offers were accepted, the question was a natural.

And his response had some more oomph.

"I'm staying here," said Piniella, whose four-year deal will pay about $8-million in its last two seasons and who has been mentioned prominently by the New York media as a possible replacement for the Mets' Art Howe.

"All these things that have been talked about is all someone's speculation. Nothing ever came out of me. I'm signed here for two more years. With me it's always been nothing but speculation. That's all it is."

That is all Piniella said on the subject, though he is expected to push hard for the team to significantly increase its $23-million onfield payroll.

The contract offers to hitting coach Lee Elia, third-base coach Tom Foley, first-base coach Billy Hatcher, pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, bench coach John McLaren, bullpen coach Matt Sinatro and special assistant Don Zimmer were another story.

"It's the right decision because they do a very professional job," Piniella said. "They care and have loyalty to the organization. You get a club like ours that's lost for two years, sometimes an organization wants to make some changes. So I'm very appreciative that our organization is going to extend these guys."

General manager Chuck LaMar said it was not a difficult decision.

"Continuity in a major-league organization is everything," he said. "It's easy to make changes and think the grass is greener on the other side. But we're talking about very professional baseball people who represent this organization in an outstanding manner. I hope it works out where we keep them intact."

The most interesting decision might be Zimmer's. The St. Pete Beach resident is in his 56th season and could retire. He also could return to coaching.

"I've gotten the offer," Zimmer said.

"I like his input," Piniella said. "He's done a really nice job here. He brings a lot of professionalism and he's got is own opinions about things."

McLaren said that is one of the strengths of the staff.

"I can suggest something to the other coaches and they're not threatened by it, and that's the way it should be," he said. "It's good chemistry for us to have that kind of working relationship."

McLaren said the team is improving.

"It's hard to tell sometimes because you don't see it so much in wins, but we're going in the right direction," he said. "We all just want to feel like we're on the same page and have a good general game plan with the organization. That has a lot to do with it for me."

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