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New owner draws Lou's rap

Published Aug. 25, 2005

Lou Piniella had enough. Saddled with the worst team in the majors and no hope for an infusion of talent, Piniella ripped the Devil Rays new ownership group, accusing Stu Sternberg and partners of abandoning a plan to make the team competitive and saying he no longer will take responsibility for the team's poor play.

"When I came here three years ago, we were talking about a situation where we wanted to win now, and we were interested in winning now," Piniella said before Sunday's 7-5, 13-inning win over the Pirates. "With a small payroll, we improved it from 55 (wins) to 63, and from 63 to 70. This was supposed to be the breakout year.

"The problem is we've got a new ownership group here that's changed the direction of where we're headed. They're not interested about the present. They're interested about the future. And that's their right. But when other teams are getting better presently and we're not, you're going to get your butts beat, and that's exactly what's happening.

"I'm not going to take responsibility for this. If I had been given a $40- or $45-million payroll and was getting beat like that, I'd stand up like a man and say it's my fault. Well, I'm not going to do it."

Sternberg declined comment, which has been his policy since buying into the team in May 2004. Managing general partner Vince Naimoli, who has been with the team on the 14-day roadtrip that ended Sunday, said "I'm sorry, I can't comment." General manager Chuck LaMar said he would address the issue before tonight's game at Tropicana Field.

Piniella's frustration with the team's performance is well documented, and the timing of his comments, delivered forcefully but under control, was not surprising, coming the morning after an embarrassing 18-2 defeat that extended a losing streak to seven and dropped the Rays' record to a major-league worst 20-42. He was waiting anxiously for reporters to come to his office for the usual pregame interview session, and said he had been thinking about the situation "all night."

What was different, and most interesting, was the target as well as the intent.

There has been massive criticism of Naimoli's leadership, including the formation of several fan-fueled Web sites and last week's ESPN Outside the Lines report, and Sternberg's expected takeover of day-to-day control has been viewed as a pivotal step toward success. The transition is believed to be timed for the end of the 2006 season, though there has been speculation that the timetable could be accelerated, perhaps to the end of this season.

Piniella was hired by Naimoli and assured the team would increase the payroll annually to become competitive. But his Sunday-morning blast was clearly aimed at Sternberg and was the first public suggestion of what has been rumored since the offseason, that Sternberg is making the key decisions.

Though Sternberg has placed two key employees in the front office, vice president of planning and development Matt Silverman and assistant to baseball development Andrew Friedman, Naimoli still has the title of managing general partner and, technically, still is in charge.

Under that theory, it would have been Naimoli's decision to increase the payroll only a small amount to a major-league low $29-million, though Piniella definitely indicated otherwise.

"If you want answers for what's going on here, you call the new ownership group and let them give it to you," Piniella said. "That's all I've got to say."

The intent of Piniella's remarks was less clear.

It could be that Piniella just became so frustrated with the troubled situation that he felt he had to say something in an attempt to spur ownership to make improvements. On Thursday, he said the players weren't to blame for the poor record and he hoped ownership would see the merit in expanding the payroll to bring in some top veterans.

Or it could have been a calculated move on his part to expedite his own departure, hoping to force ownership to fire him, or at least negotiate a settlement that would allow a graceful exit from his hometown team.

Piniella is signed through the 2006 season, with the Rays paying him around $3.5-million this year and $4.5-million next year, plus they owe him about $1-million in deferred payments from 2003.

No matter how upset Rays officials are, it would seem very unlikely they would just fire Piniella, which would cause them to take a major public-relations hit and leave the team responsible for his remaining salary.

It would seem just as unlikely that Piniella would simply walk away from the money, as well as turn his back on fans, friends and relatives who celebrated his homecoming when he took over the Rays after getting out of the final year of his contract in Seattle in 2002.

But if Piniella is going to continue to express his unhappiness publicly and if Rays officials were to decide he is not the right manager, in terms of temperament or price, for a young team building for the future, it may be in the best interests of both parties to figure out a way to end the relationship. A trade might have to wait until the offseason, but it would seem plausible the sides could get together relatively soon and work on a negotiated settlement.

The Rays could save at least some of the millions they owe Piniella, and he would have the chance to manage elsewhere with a contending team. There already have been rumors in New York suggesting he could be in line to replace Joe Torre as manager of the struggling Yankees.

No immediate action is expected, but discussions could take place in the coming weeks, especially with the Rays headed next week to New York, where Sternberg lives and occasionally attends games.

Several prominent Rays said they agreed with Piniella's assessment that ownership has not done its part.

"I don't think he's lying," said Aubrey Huff, their most highly paid player at $4.75-million.

"Obviously we're not making a lot of moves and if he says that is the reason behind it, I believe him," shortstop Julio Lugo said. "You're not going to see a jump to a $100-million payroll, but we want to see at least one step at a time."

Huff, who is signed through next season, said something has to change.

"It can't continue to be like this every year," he said. "We're just not making any strides to get better. Every year it's the same song and dance. Other teams are getting better. Look at Arizona this year. They were one of the worst teams in baseball last year, and they've gotten better. It just doesn't happen here."

Carl Crawford, who in March signed an extension that could be worth $32.5-million over six years, said it is obvious improvements are needed.

"I'm grateful for what they did for me but when you go out there and lose games like we did (Saturday) night and get totally embarrassed you just wish you had a little help around you," Crawford said.

"I'm not saying nothing bad about the guys that are here, but I'm being realistic. You wish you had more help around you so we at least could be competitive. We're not even competitive right now. We're not just losing games, we're getting blown out. It's been embarrassing right now. You just want to hide your head under the ground."

Like Piniella, the players are hoping that somehow things will improve.

"I don't know what's going on, if (Sternberg) is waiting for Naimoli to leave or what," Huff said. "I just hope something happens for us to get better."