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Good exposure for the Devil Rays
03/25/2004  3:49 PM ET
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Devil Rays are honored and pleased to be going to Japan for Opening Day, but they are realistic about how the two-game series with the Yankees is perceived.

"The eyes of baseball haven't been focused on the Devil Rays too much," manager Lou Piniella said. "The Yankees are obviously the draw, and we're the opponent. Major League Baseball is striving for more international exposure than ever before, and we're a part of it.

"This is an opportunity for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It's good exposure for our team. Hopefully, we'll leave behind some new Devil Rays fans."

The Rays started camp earlier than any team in the Majors this spring with a goal of mixing in their new veterans and making important roster decisions before leaving for Tokyo on Thursday afternoon.

"From a GM standpoint, it has been interesting trying to make moves a week before all of the other teams," said Rays general manager Chuck LaMar. "But I like the feel of speeding up the game a little bit, letting the regulars play a little bit more earlier in the camp than usual. That works as long as nobody gets hurt."

The Rays even moved up the start of their game with the Blue Jays on Thursday to 12:05 p.m. so they could get a head start on travel.

"We're as ready to break camp as ever," LaMar said.

The group boarded a Japan Airlines 747 charter at St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport for a flight to San Francisco, where everyone deplaned for 90 minutes during refueling. From there, it was just more than 11 hours until arrival in Tokyo.

The traveling party included 32 players, the coaching staff and members of the front office, seven members of the media, guests from each of the Rays' minor league affiliates, and team sponsors. There were also a couple of lucky Rays fans who won a drawing for trips to Japan.

There is a 14-hour time difference between Tampa Bay and Tokyo, with Japan being ahead. So when the Rays arrive in Tokyo, it will be 11 a.m. on Friday in Tampa Bay but 1 a.m. Saturday in Tokyo.

Twelve hours after arrival, the Rays are scheduled for a news conference and then a workout at the Tokyo Dome. There is a reception on Saturday night and an exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers at the dome at noon Tokyo time Sunday.

The Rays will play two exhibition games against Japanese teams and have a day off before opening the regular season against the Yankees on Tuesday in Tokyo. The game time is 7 p.m. in Japan and 5 a.m. ET.

"I don't think our players truly comprehend what a huge event this is," LaMar said. "When they work out at the Tokyo Dome, they get some feel for it. And then, when there's 50,000 people for an exhibition game, it'll start to sink in."

The Rays and Yankees were each allowed to take up to 33 players to Japan to use in the exhibition games but have to set their final 25-man roster at midnight the night before the regular-season opener.

Piniella said Rays traveling secretary Jeff Ziegler did an excellent job of preparing for the journey and expects no major problems.

"We've got no concerns, we'll be ready to play," Piniella said. "Our club is fairly young and shouldn't have any problems. Put it this way, if we don't play well over there, we won't use it as an excuse.

"We've talked to a couple of the teams that have gone in the past. It's a tough trip, but we'll be fine. There are going to be 50,000 people in that Tokyo Dome. You are going to get juiced up to play."

Piniella has been to Japan before, on a goodwill visit in the early 1990s, and learned to adjust at meal time, too.

"I like Kobe beef," Piniella said. "But I also like a scrambled egg in the morning. A nice, fresh eel in the mornings doesn't sound so good."

The Rays players were offered an opportunity to bring their spouses or significant others, and many of them did.

The players had several meetings about preparations for the trip, including one with players union chief Donald Fehr.

"We have no major concerns about Japan," said Rays player representative Paul Abbott. "It's a trip of a lifetime. Everybody who has been there has raved about it."

Lefty pitcher Damian Moss has been to Japan several times on his way to and from his native Australia. This time will be especially nice, though, because he is going to get to see his mother and his sister for the first time since 1998.

"It's going to be very special," Moss said.

Rays lefty starter Mark Hendrickson, a 6-foot-9 former NBA forward can't wait to stand out even more in a crowd.

"I'm anxious to see how much taller I am," Hendrickson said.

Right-handed pitcher Rob Bell was selected as one of the extra players to go on the trip.

"All I know is, there are a lot of people looking for Opening Day tickets for the Yankees against the Devil Rays, and I have one," Bell said.

Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli has been to Japan 28 times. As a member of MLB's International Committee, he is happy his players can be a part of history.

"There is so much to see and do and learn over there," Naimoli said. "This might be the only time the players get a chance to experience the culture."

Naimoli said the big picture is coming into focus, as well.

"Baseball is the national pastime of the U.S.," Naimoli said. "We'd like to make it the national pastime of the world."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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