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Piniella's plan needs support

Despite the best efforts of the New York papers, there really shouldn't be any confusion over whether Lou Piniella is staying or going.

The Devil Rays are not going to let Piniella go anywhere with two years remaining on his contract. And _ much to the disbelief of the New York media _ Piniella doesn't want to leave.

What Piniella wants _ as you may have heard by now _ is the chance to win with the Devil Rays. He wants the payroll raised enough _ at least to the mid $30-million range for next season _ to add some proven, established veterans who can play leading roles.

And, ultimately, he wants to help baseball be a success in his hometown Tampa Bay area.

"I'd like to see this get to the point where we get above .500, where we have a situation where we can compete and win more baseball games and excite some people in the bay area for a full season and watch this organization grow and prosper," Piniella said. "That's what I'd like to see more than anything else."

There was a brief sample this summer, for a couple weeks anyway, when Tampa Bay was a baseball town. The Lightning had won the Stanley Cup, the Bucs hadn't started losing yet, and when the Rays ripped off 12 straight wins and moved into third place, they came home for a late June series with the Marlins and there actually was a baseball buzz in the air.

Piniella knew the Rays weren't good enough to keep winning, especially not at the 30-10 pace. That's why he pushed so hard for trading deadline improvements, hoping not only to win more games but to sustain the interest they'd built with the fans.

For most of their seven years, the Rays have employed the philosophy that payroll should be a product of attendance. It should be obvious, with the tens of thousands of empty seats a night a stark reminder, that that isn't going to work here. It worked the other way when Piniella was in Seattle _ ownership spent the money to field a competitive team and the fans responded, and it's time to try that here.

When Piniella's agent, Alan Nero, meets with top Rays officials Monday _ a session, by the way, scheduled months ago at the team's suggestion _ he is likely to hear the kind of things Piniella wants to hear. The Rays say they are committed to winning, they are going to have more money to spend (like around $15-million), they plan to bring in some key veterans, perhaps a pitcher such as Brad Radke or a hitter such as Tony Batista or Corey Koskie.

They may not agree to do as much as Piniella wants, or do it as quickly as he wants, but it should be a step in the direction he wants to go. Really, it should be the direction they all want to go.

And if ownership does its part, and GM Chuck LaMar, Piniella and the players do theirs, maybe within another year or two they'll be the ones playing the key late September series, and the Red Sox and Yankees will be watching them.

"I'd like to see baseball flourish and do well in the Tampa Bay area," Piniella said. "And I think it can, given some tender loving care."

RAYS ON THE RADIO: With a week to go in this season, the Rays don't have a radio deal for next season. Senior VP Dave Auker said they are talking to several candidates, including the incumbents at Clear Channel, with hopes of having something worked out soon.

Until the Rays get a deal, broadcasters Paul Olden and Charlie Slowes, who have been with the team from the start, won't know if they'll have jobs for next season. And when the Rays get a deal, it will be interesting to see if they get anywhere near the several million dollars a year they had been getting in rights fees.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Relocation of the Expos to Washington hurts the Rays' hopes for realignment; a move to Mexico or Las Vegas could've put the Expos in the AL West and let the Rays escape to the NL East. It's hard to think the minor-league system is in better shape with the low Class A team moving from Charleston, S.C., to Battle Creek, Mich., and the advanced A team not getting any closer to Tampa Bay than Visalia, Calif.

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