Rays Tales: 10 things you didn’t know about the 1998 inaugural team

There were 73 Devil Rays players in their first spring training.
Was signing Wilson Alvarez, shown with managing general partner Vince Naimoli and GM Chuck LaMar, a bad sign for the Devil Rays? [Times files]
Was signing Wilson Alvarez, shown with managing general partner Vince Naimoli and GM Chuck LaMar, a bad sign for the Devil Rays? [Times files]
Published March 31, 2018

In a season aimed at celebrating history they previously declined to embrace, the Rays honored the 1998 inaugural team Saturday, appropriately on the 20th anniversary of the first-ever game. The Rays have obviously had better teams than this 63-99 bunch, going on to make the playoffs four times from 2008-13, and they've had worse teams, losing 100-plus games three times. Here are 10 things to know about that first season:

• They started with a cattle call. The 73 players that gathered for the opening of spring training at the complex near St. Petersburg's Tyrone Square Mall were the most for any first-year expansion team, though shy of the overall cluster mark of 82 by Billy Martin's 1982 A's.

• They didn't really know what they were doing. Or, more precisely, didn't have a lot of people in charge who had done their jobs before. Vince Naimoli was a first-time owner who hired Chuck LaMar as a first-time GM who hired Larry Rothschild as a first-time manager. The only member of the original senior management team who had done his job before in the majors was PR man Rick Vaughn. Naimoli caused a rash of PR issues by creating conflicts with business and community leaders, such as taking sole credit for landing the franchise ("There is no one but me who got the team") and objecting to Dillard's using the team logo in an ad.

• They had quite the crew in their first camp. That included, according to their entertaining media guide, a player who scored 1,200 on his SAT and had a political science/history degree from Duke, where he also played football (OF Quinton McCracken); was called Bart for his resemblance to the cartoon star and thus was an avid fan of The Simpsons (RHP Bryan Rekar); grew up on a dairy farm in tiny Mayo (Herbert Perry); was an avid rock climber and spelunker (LHP Mike Duvall); hit four homers in a minor-league game and developed a cult following (OF Bubba Trammell); was such a pool aficionado he owned a $1,200 stick (LHP Terrell Wade); sung the anthem before several big-league games (OF Dwight Smith); and had fans — 20 years ago, remember — create a website to chronicle his knuckleballing exploits (RHP Dennis Springer).

• They made some bad deals. Most egregious was trading away one of their best players before he ever put on a uniform, Bobby Abreu. In a pre-arranged deal to satisfy GM Chuck LaMar's preference for an established shortstop, the Rays took Abreu from the Astros with their third expansion draft pick and swapped him to the Phillies for Kevin Stocker. Abreu played 15 more years, logging 2,385 hits and getting MVP votes six times. Stocker played 2½ seasons for the Rays before getting released and didn't play in the majors after 2000.

• They had some accomplished players. Headlining was Tampa-raised 3B Wade Boggs, who already had 12 All-Star Game selections, seven straight 200-hit seasons, five AL batting titles and a World Series ring when he signed on at age 39 to come home to cap his Hall of Fame-bound career with the final 200 hits needed to reach 3,000, which he got in August 1999. Also, Tampa native 1B Fred McGriff, who had hit 30-plus homers in seven seasons and 20-plus in 11 and won a World Series; LHP Wilson Alvarez, who had thrown a no-hitter; and RHP Roberto Hernandez, who had four 30-save seasons.

• They made some unwise investments. Rather than commit to building with a young corps around their expansion draft picks, the Devil Rays spent more than $70 million signing veterans to multiyear deals, none worse than committing $35 million over five seasons to Wilson Alvarez, who went 6-14, 4.73 in 1998 and just 17-26, 4.62 in 76 starts overall, missing 2000-01 after shoulder surgery. Plus, his first pitch in franchise history was a ball! Also signed for bigger bucks were RHP Roberto Hernandez ($22.5 million over four years) and OF Dave Martinez ($5.5 million over three). In doing so, the supposedly development-driven Rays lost their first three picks in the 1998 draft, which featured future big-leaguers they could have had such as OF Aaron Rowand, OF Adam Dunn and C Brandon Inge. (They did hit on fifth-round pick Aubrey Huff.)

• The opener was a dud. Not that they weren't trying, but after 20-plus years of buildup, Tampa Bay-wide anticipation and all the pomp and circumstance of the inaugural game, the Devil Rays fell behind 6-0 to the Tigers by the third inning and 11-0 by the fifth, though they did rally to make it 11-6.

• Their first All-Star was an unexpected choice. RHP Rolando Arrojo, a Cuban defector to whom they paid a $7 million bonus, won the first game in franchise history, six of seven in an impressive 6-1, 1.93 run and 10 of his first 17 before heading to Colorado for the midsummer classic. (The Rays traded him after the 1999 season to the Rockies with INF Aaron Ledesma for Vinny Castilla to be part of the ill-fated 2000 Hit Show, which is another story.)

• They actually did some things well. Second-round expansion draft pick OF Quinton McCracken won team MVP honors after rapping 179 hits, including an 18-game streak that stood as the team record until Jason Bartlett's 19 in 2009. Lower expansion draft picks INF Miguel Cairo and OF Randy Winn went on to have long careers, as did draft-trade pickup C John Flaherty. Overall, the Rays were the first expansion team to finish in the top five in its league in ERA (4.35, fourth, under pitching coach Rick Williams) and fielding percentage (.985, second); get four games over .500 at any point in its first season at 10-6 (they were the third among all sports, also the NHL 1967 Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings); win 12 games in April; and sweep a road series from a defending league/division champ, at Baltimore.

• They had some memorable firsts. That started with the first pitch by Wilson Alvarez; hit, Dave Martinez; run, Quinton McCracken; RBI and home run, Wade Boggs; double, John Flaherty; triple, Kevin Stocker; grand slam, Paul Sorrento; stolen base, McCracken and Miguel Cairo (double steal); win, Rolando Arrojo; loss, Alvarez; save, Roberto Hernandez; error, Arrojo.

The Sternberg report

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg shared frank observations before Thursday's opener, topped by a prediction that if the bullpen performs as well as expected they'll "get well into the 80s in wins." … He considers the Rays among the second tier of AL teams after the "cut above" Astros, Indians, Red Sox and Yankees, in a four- or five-team group with wide outcomes of 72 to 86 wins. … He said the Rays will be last or close in runs scored but also will be — or "better be" — at the top in allowing the fewest based on "defense and pitching." … If the Rays do get a new stadium built locally with a retractable roof, it would be open "well more" than the six times Miami's was last year. … Also, in actually listening to Sternberg's group interview, he did not commit or suggest the Rays would pay half the cost of the proposed $800 million Ybor City stadium based on a naming rights deal, but he was providing an illustrative example of how financing deals can come together, citing the Mets' Citi Field pact.

Rays rumblings

The average forecast high temperature for the upcoming 10-day road trip to New York, Boston and Chicago is — brrrr — 46. … OF Rob Refsnyder cost the Rays $90,000 to Cleveland, per the Associated Press. … One benefit of the veteran-shredding roster shakeup: Players' parking spots at the Trop are assigned by MLB service time seniority, so Brad Miller, for example, got 10 closer. … First homestand Trop likes: the organ, improved food options, already popular Ballpark & Rec space. … Though opening with a $67.5 million payroll, the Rays actually have more than $75 million committed, including payments to released RHP Daniel Hudson ($4.5M) and LHP Dan Jennings ($575K), plus traded 3B Evan Longoria ($2M). … Though often innovators, the Rays don't plan (as of now) to go as far as the four-man outfield alignment the Astros used, or the flipping of left- and rightfielders situationally as the Phillies experimented with. … The Rays have three of the top 32 picks in the June draft, getting comp selections for RHP Alex Cobb signing with Baltimore and 2017 pick RHP Drew Rasmussen not signing, and will have one of the largest signing bonus pools. … There has been no further word on the grievance filed by the players union against the Rays and three other teams alleging they didn't spend revenue sharing funds properly. … Small world note: Before Carson Smith Thursday, the Red Sox's last opening day blown save was in 2008 by Kyle Snyder, now the Rays pitching coach. … One note PR whiz Craig Vanderkam didn't look up: last team to have two presidents on opening day, as the Rays did with Brian Auld and Matt Silverman. … Not that the Rays will be stepping into too much hype for the Yankees' home opener Monday, but the New York Post's front page after the season opener anointed OF/DH Giancarlo Stanton the GIANBINO! and reminded fans, "Buy your World Series tix now."