Rays’ time is near

Opening day for baseball is different than the start of a new season for any other sport. It’s the time of year when every diehard fan says, “This is our year.” And while this most likely isn’t the Devil Rays’ year, it will be their best year yet.

The Rays’ home opener isn’t until April 10, but they’ll open their season on the road today against Baltimore.

After eight straight losing seasons and the exit of one of baseball’s most respected managers in Lou Piniella, why should Rays fans be excited about a new season? That can be answered in one word: ownership.

Since Malcom Glazer bought the Buccaneers in 1995, they’ve made it to two NFC championship games and won a Super Bowl. And since Bill Davidson bought the Lightning in 1999, the franchise has gone from one of the worst teams in the NHL to the 2004 Stanley Cup Champions.

So there is hope for Rays fans as new owner Stuart Sternberg now has complete control and ex-owner Vince Naimoli is out the door.

While it’s understandable for any fan to get excited about a team when a major change is made, Rays fans should immediately respect Sternberg simply because he’ll be giving up thousands of dollars in profits by allowing fans to bring food into Tropicana Field and providing free parking.

That alone says he cares and wants more fans to show up.

And while Sternberg didn’t make a whole lot of off-season changes among player personnel, the Rays actually finished last season with an above .500 record at 39-34 after the all-star break.

Anyone who has followed this team since its inception in 1998 is probably sick of hearing about how bright the future looks and how good certain prospects will be one day. But after the way the Rays performed in the latter part of last season, that future everyone talks about could be the present.

If Carl Crawford has another .300-plus batting average season, Jonny Gomes hits another 28 home runs and new manager Joe Maddon is able to convince his young team it can actually compete in the league’s toughest division, the Rays will be on their way to a better season than Tampa Bay fans are accustomed to.

So Rays fans shouldn’t be disappointed Sternberg didn’t go after any big-name hitters in the off-season; that’s not what they need. Sternberg needs to step in with the big money for pitching. And he will, eventually. It won’t be as big as most fans would hope, but he will spend more money.

Because, as usual, Tampa will struggle on the mound. After all, the ace of the team, Scott Kazmir, only won 10 games last season, and Mark Hendrickson is the only other guy in the five-man rotation whose win column reached double figures in 2005 (11-8).

The fans, whatever may be left of them, deserve to have a major league team that is at least respectable and not the laughingstock of the big leagues.

And if Sternberg and Executive Vice President Andrew Friedman can keep their group of core hitters together, this city will see a winning team, if not this year, then in the next two years.

I’m not saying the Rays will make the playoffs this year. They won’t. But they will win more games than they ever have (70 in 2004). If they can manage to win between 80 and 85 games, they’ll finish in third place in their division, and their season will be considered a success.

Tampa fans aren’t strangers to losing. The Bucs were the biggest joke in the NFL at one point, and just four years ago, you couldn’t give Lightning tickets away.

The Rays’ time is almost here.