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ON BASEBALL

He's kicking butts and getting his butt kicked

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- As a recently diagnosed diabetic, Lou Piniella was advised to quit smoking. He says he's been off the butts for four months, and is this close to kicking the habit. "Once in a while when we come in after we got beat," he said, "I feel like chewing one."

The Devil Rays were supposed to be better this year. How many Chamber of Commerce breakfasts and how many Rotary luncheons and how many country club cocktail crowds heard Piniella make that pledge this winter, that this would be the year Tampa Bay did something other than finish in last place in the American League East?

Instead, the Devil Rays are as bad as ever, which is a hard thing to say about a team that lost 99 games last season, Piniella's first as manager of his hometown team, and considered it progress.

The Devil Rays have played almost a quarter of their 2004 schedule, and have yet to win back-to-back games, the only major league team that has yet do so. They're only the third team in the last 72 years to go so deep into a season without winning two in a row. In their last 22 games, they'd lost 19, their worst stretch ever over 20-plus games.

At 10-28, the Devil Rays have the worst record in baseball. Worse than the disappointing Royals and Mariners, worse than the nomadic Expos, worse than the Schilling-less Diamondbacks.

"Sooner or later you come to the realization that this thing is not working," Piniella said. "How often do you want to get punched in the mouth?"

In Tuesday night's 7-3 loss to the Sox, Piniella's cleanup man was Julio Lugo, a shortstop of modest proportions who until last year had never hit more than 10 home runs in a season. "People see that," Lugo said, smiling at what he imagined was the reaction to that strategem, "and they're going to think I got stronger."

You do things like installing Julio Lugo as your cleanup man when the pitching staffs of seven National League teams are hitting for a higher batting average than the .157 posted by the half-dozen players Piniella has used as his designated hitter this season. Lugo was the seventh player Piniella has tried in the No. 4 hole. By contrast, Manny Ramirez has been the Sox' cleanup hitter in all but three of their 40 games this season.

"He's swinging the bat better than anyone else we got," Piniella said about using Lugo in the 4-hole, "as far as driving in runs."

Like just about everything else the Devil Rays have tried this season, the Lugo experiment didn't pan out. With runners on second and third and the score still close (2-1, Sox) in the sixth, Lugo popped up on Tim Wakefield's first pitch, ending the inning. In their next at-bat, the Sox scored five runs.

"Boston's got a good team," Piniella said at the outset of the series, then added with a trace of sarcasm, "I don't think we've played a bad team yet."

The message, of course, is that it's all relative. Play the Devil Rays and you're guaranteed of looking like a world-beater. The Devil Rays entered the big leagues the same season as the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks have won a World Series. The Devil Rays have yet to win the support of what passes for a decent crowd at Tropicana Field. Most of the fans here this week were cheering for the Red Sox. But at least there were fannies in the seats. Come back here after the Sox leave and the Indians and Twins arrive. It will be so quiet, you'll be able to hear a manager change his mind about the value of coming home.

Sure, the rumors already have started. Larry Rocca in the Newark Star-Ledger wrote this week that the Mets are prepared to pounce if Piniella grows weary of the losing and seeks an exit strategy. Piniella, of course, would hear nothing of it.

"I don't read newspapers," he said. "There's nothing for me to read newspapers about. I don't know what was written, I don't know what was said, I don't have to address anything. All I know is I'm tired of losing. That I am tired of. Nothing more, nothing less. Just tired of the losing."

Chuck LaMar, the same general manager who once thought importing Jose Canseco, Vinny Castilla, and Fred McGriff was the road to respectability, and invited ridicule instead, went the veteran route again this winter, hoping to upgrade a team that last summer featured exciting rookies in outfielders Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli. But the latest wave of imports, outside of Tino Martinez, also has failed to perform, with Jose Cruz Jr. and Robert Fick hitting under the Mendoza Line, while Aubrey Huff, who was rewarded with a fat contract after a breakout 2003 (.311, 34, 107) hitting just .207. Geoff Blum is right at .200.

The team is last in hitting with a .237 average. The pitching? Devil Ray starters began the night with an 8-21 record and 5.98 ERA, 13th in the AL. Last night's starter, Rob Bell, was just called up from the minors. "I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch," Piniella said. In five innings of last night's 4-1 loss, Bell gave up 5 hits and 4 runs, walked 3, and struck out 2.

In the third inning, Bell gave up a home run to Johnny Damon and a double to David Ortiz, then threw a pitch so far over Manny Ramirez's head, it hit the base of the backstop on the fly. Two pitches later, Ramirez homered over the center-field fence. After last night's loss, Piniella, his voice and temper rising, questioned whether this team had the "spunk" to fight its way out of its seemingly endless malaise."It's been a tough haul," Piniella said. "It's been a tough haul for everybody. This is no fun for anybody, believe me." He won't knock his players. He won't knock his bosses or an owner, Vince Naimoli, who has all but eroded every bit of good will he engendered by bringing baseball to the Bay.

"We've lost in a myriad of ways," Piniella said. "We came out playing decent baseball, then we got caught on the road and started losing and we kept losing.

"Sooner or later you come to the realization that something ain't working and you'd better start looking for some alternatives."

Yesterday, the Devil Rays announced that the 40-year-old McGriff, whom they re-signed to a minor league deal in February when everyone else figured he was through, would begin playing for Triple A Durham and if all went well would be back with the big club by the end of the month.

Hope for the future? Enough to make a man want to chew on a cigarette. 

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