New Devil Rays are keeping promises

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- They have to figure out a way to beat the Yankees. And they have to figure out a way to beat the Red Sox.

So you think that's trouble? Heck, for those Tampa Bay Devil Rays, that's almost the easy part.

You like challenges? How about this little challenge: They need to inflict about 2.4 million people with a serious case of amnesia.

So how do you do that, anyway? How do you make an entire metropolitan area forget you've never had a season in team history that didn't end with at least 90 losses?

How do you make every single one of your customers forget that you kind of forgot to clean off the seats in the ballpark eight years in a row?

How do you rub a giant eraser over eight years of bad will, bad management and bad baseball?

It sounds like one of those things in sports that can't be done. Except, amazingly, there are signs everywhere this spring that the Devil Rays are doing it.

They booted the previous principal owner (Vince Naimoli), a guy who managed to alienate just about every fan, every sponsor and even every one of his own employees in his turbulent decade in charge.

They booted the previous general manager (Chuck LaMar), a guy who kept peering over the horizon for a glory day that no one else could see with a telescope.

And from every indication, the concept of addition by subtraction has never gone over better in any community in sporting history.

There's a new principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, and new team president, Matt Silverman, whose previous gigs were on Wall Street. There's a new baseball management team, headed by another former Wall Streeter, Andrew Friedman, and one-time Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker. There's affable new manager Joe Maddon. And it's hard to find anything they haven't said or done right from the moment they took charge.

They've been handed an opportunity teams almost never get in life -- not without building a ballpark, signing A-Rod or moving the franchise several thousand miles.

They've been given a mulligan. And they're making the most of it.

But more on that later.

Because the damage the Devil Rays have had to undo wasn't limited to their community. It also included a guy named Delmon Young.

If you haven't heard of Young, well, that'll change. Real soon.

Soon, there won't be a fan on earth who doesn't know his name, because we're talking about a 20-year-old hit factory who was just ranked by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect in the whole sport.

But we're also talking about a guy who uttered the following words only six months ago, upon learning he wasn't being recalled by the Rays in September, after becoming the first teenager since Andruw Jones to win a minor-league player-of-the-year award:

"As soon as I get my time in up there, I'll bounce out of there," Young said then, during his national player-of-the-year conference call, of all things. "There's no reason to stay around for the long haul. Get your six years and leave."

But a funny thing happened to Young a few weeks after he began that Countdown Till I Can Get the Heck Out of This Dump.

He found himself sitting in a restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif., where the highest-ranking baseball man on the Devil Rays' flow chart (Friedman) had made a special trip, just to tell him: "You know how things were done around here in the past? Well, those days are over."

Of course, the men who run the Devil Rays tell that to just about every man, woman, child and household pet they meet these days. But this was different.

As much as this team needs sponsors and fans and employees to buy into the new program, none of that is going to matter unless something way more important happens.

It had better win. Soon.

And its chances of doing that would be a whole lot better if the best-hitting prospect on the planet is leading the resuscitation.

So if you were taking over a team like this, and making out your damage-control list, we bet you'd do exactly what Andrew Friedman did -- make Young the first item on the list.

And whaddaya know -- it worked. For now, anyway.

"They came out like I was somebody making $20 million a year," Young says, "like I was A-Rod or something. They just came out and acted very professional, instead of trying to treat me like a kid, like the old regime was trying to do."

"We had a very candid conversation," Friedman says. "I said, 'Look, one of the things we're doing here is opening the lines of communication.' I said, 'Delmon, I'm sure there will be times we're going to say things that you don't like. And I'm sure there are going to be times you'll say things that we don't like. But we're not going to use the press as a conduit. We're going to say them to you directly.' "

And that's cool with Young. He's still talking about how Friedman is "just very approachable and talkable." As opposed to La Mar, who "acted like he was a drill sergeant or something."

But do those words mean Young is ready to salute the new way of doing things around here for the rest of time? Uh, not so fast.

In many ways, he's exactly like millions of other folks in the scenic Tampa Bay metropolis. They've heard lots of words, lots of promises that sound great. Free parking? Clean bathrooms? Scrubbed seats? They're all for that. But we all know what they really want. They want a team that, for a change, isn't 30 games out on Labor Day.

And Young? It's obvious what he wants, too. And it's not more promises.

"You've still got to wait for what they do now," Young says. "They can say all the things they want say, like the old regime did when I was drafted and every year at the beginning of the season. But if they don't walk the walk, it doesn't really matter."

And by "walk the walk," it's no big secret what he means. This guy expects to make this team. This year.

"It would sure [tick] me off if I've got to waste another year in the minor leagues," he says at one point.

" 'Patient' isn't even a word to me," he says at another point. "I gave my two years up in the minor leagues. … If it's three, I might as well have just gone to college."

"People talk about I've got to spend time in Triple-A," he says, finally. "Well, [Jeremy] Hermida's not going to spend time in Triple-A [with Florida]. And [Jeff] Francoeur didn't spend any time in Triple-A [with Atlanta]. Miguel Cabrera didn't go to Triple-A. Griffey and A-Rod, they didn't spend much time in the minor leagues.

"You can't really treat people by their age," Young said. "You've actually got to give them a shot and throw them out on the field and feed them to the dogs, and if they're not ready, then you send them down."

Hoo boy. The guy doing the talking, remember, is 15 months younger than J.J. Redick. And has played just two minor-league seasons. And is employed by a team that isn't exactly in immediate need of more outfielders -- not with Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Jonny Gomes, Aubrey Huff, Joey Gathright and Damon Hollins all hanging around the same clubhouse Young dresses in.

On the other hand, Young has his own case to make.

In 264 minor-league games, he has cranked out 341 hits -- second only to Anaheim's Erick Aybar among all minor leaguers over the last two seasons.

Baseball America has named him the top prospect in all three minor leagues he has played in.

He was the first player picked in the entire 2003 draft.

And when he made his pro debut in the 2003 Arizona Fall League, all he did was hit .417, against the best pitching prospects in the sport.

Scouts describe him as a five-tool phenom, with a Manny Ramirez bat and an Ichiro arm. And it's hard to find anybody who doubts he will start mashing in the big leagues the minute he shows up in Tampa Bay.

"This guy is just a natural," says Indians scouting director John Mirabelli. "We've all seen it since he played in the Area Code Games (a major California prospects showcase) when he was 15 years old. He's just a very natural, gifted hitter. … He's one of those kids who has always played above his age. When he's ready, I don't think major-league pitching is going to bother this kid."

But when is he ready? There's a real good chance that, in a few weeks, the Devil Rays and Young are going to disagree vehemently on the answer to that question.

Hunsicker is the first to say that Young "has 'impact' written all over him" as a talent. But Hunsicker also believes this team has express-laned too many kids to the big leagues way too fast in the past, and "we've got to change that mind-set."

"To me," he says, "it's always been about more than just physical talent. It's all the things kids are exposed to off the field and, when they get to the big leagues, all the pressure that's on them to produce."

But Hunsicker also describes Young as "very mature for his age." And Friedman has said, repeatedly: "I wouldn't bet against Delmon Young doing anything."

So the people who run this team keep reminding themselves, and the rest of us, that Young's impatience doesn't have to be a bad thing.

"I think of it as one of his strengths, one of his positives," Friedman says. "His confidence level is one thing that's made him who he is. He doesn't think any pitcher in the game can beat him. He's a student of the game. And he has as good a recall of pitchers he's faced as any young hitter I've ever seen."

But that doesn't mean he's going to make the team, either.

He has an option left. The Rays haven't traded Huff or Gathright to lighten their outfield/DH traffic jam yet. And the business reality is that the more time Young spends in the minor leagues, the later his arbitration and free-agent clocks start ticking. Which has to be a factor for a franchise whose entire team makes less money ($36 million) than the left side of the Yankees' infield ($44 million).

Young doesn't want to hear any of that, though. The presence of all those other outfielders? That "doesn't mean anything," he says. Those, um, business realities? That business stuff "is the thing that really [stinks] about baseball right now," he says.

So anybody want to guess where this is leading?

Wherever it's heading, it's a test. And it's a test that symbolizes the plight of this franchise on many levels.

The people who now run this team have spent their offseason undoing years worth of damage. They've spoken at their chicken dinners. They've listened to their focus groups. And just about everything they've done or said has worked.

Ticket sales are up. Minds are open. Sponsors are back. Optimism has never been higher. Not just on the outside, either. Even Young says players on this team now feel almost like they've "been traded to a first-class organization, compared to what it's been in the past."

But in baseball, there's a little dose of reality that always comes into play eventually. It's known as "the season."

No focus group can help these guys figure out how to beat Randy Johnson. No cleanup crew can turn Scott Kazmir into Johan Santana overnight. And no matter how open the lines of communication are, they might not be enough to make Young understand why he's hitting cleanup for Durham on April 28.

So when Young says, "We'll just see what happens when the season starts," he really speaks for more than himself.

Is there actual hope for this franchise to succeed, in a community that has never seen a winning baseball season, in a division where dollars speak louder than words?

We'll just see what happens when the season starts. But at least there's now a major-league baseball franchise in Tampa Bay. And it only took until Season No. 9 for a real opening day to finally arrive.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.