July 9, 2002

It's A Wonderful Life

July 9, 2002

By Carter Gaddis
Tampa Tribune

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Randy Winn smiles more. That's probably the biggest difference this year. Perhaps that's because he has so much to smile about.

Consider the year to date.

Today, (the former Santa Clara University baseball standout will) represent the Devil Rays at the All-Star Game in Milwaukee. In January, he made a half-court shot during halftime of an L.A. Clippers game to win his mother a car.

In March, he earned the starting job in center field after coming to spring training not knowing if Manager Hal McRae even considered him an everyday player (McRae didn't).

In June, he was moved to the leadoff spot he tried many times before to win during his first four years with the Rays. He not only secured the leadoff spot, he also parlayed it into an All-Star berth.

Oh, and one more thing. In November, he'll marry longtime girlfriend Blessings Robertson.

A year of blessings, indeed.

``At this point, yeah. It seems that way,'' Winn said. ``There have been a lot of things that have gone well for me this year. But I don't think you can really appreciate it until it's all over and it's all said and done with and you look back and say, `Wow. That was cool.' ''

What's cool is a .310 batting average, a career-high seven home runs, 42 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and 104 hits at the All- Star break. At age 28, he has come into his own as a professional baseball player.

There was no way to know it would come to this when he reported to spring training. Sure, he batted .273 with six home runs and 50 RBIs in 2001, his first full year in the majors.

And yes, he batted .316 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in 37 games for Santurce in Puerto Rico, his first extended experience with winter baseball.

But when he spoke with McRae about his role this year, the manager told him he considered him a part-time player. Winn's reaction has been well- documented: He politely disagreed and went about winning the job in center.

McRae has never been more pleased to be wrong.

``I think what has come out of the whole deal, I think he feels I said what I said because I thought he was a better player than he was playing,'' McRae said. ``I remember when I came through the minor leagues and I played for Don Zimmer. He was hard on me because he thought I could do better.

``It doesn't really matter. It's what [Winn] thinks. His perception is what's important, because he has to play.''

Another reason Winn smiles more these days: He no longer has to worry about whether his next at-bat will be his last before yet another trip to Triple- A Durham. The team's 29th selection in the 1997 expansion draft went back and forth from the majors to the minors seven times his first three years with the Rays after spending three years in the Marlins' farm system.

``I've been up and down and there's been a lot of uncertainty about my role here in my time here,'' he said. ``I knew that when I did get called up, it wasn't like, all right, here you go, the left field job's yours. So, when I came up, it was like, all right, I'm here, I'm going to play hard, I'm going to do what I can do to the best of my ability and whatever happens, happens.''

He saw players come and go. He saw managers and coaches come and go. Besides making that half-court shot in January, Winn hit another jackpot that month - a $960,000 arbitration settlement with the Rays.

Pretty soon, he'll be able to apply the $25,000 bonus he got for making the All-Star team to a nice honeymoon with Blessings.

There are trade rumors. The Giants are said to be interested. After nearly five years with the Rays, to finally reach his potential and be traded would be an ironic twist to his dream year.

Then again, a professional move across the country might actually be in keeping with the theme of the year - he attended San Ramon Valley High in the San Francisco Bay area and his family still lives there.

There is more to accomplish here, though. First, the All-Star Game. Then, another round of arbitration or a long-term contract if the payroll-conscious Rays decide he's an affordable part of the future.

For now, he'll just enjoy the year of a lifetime, smiling more than ever, not thinking for a minute that things can't get any better than this.

``I hope not,'' he said. ``I hope there's bigger and better things for my future and the team's, too.''