How Troy Percival became the maitre d' of Tampa Bay
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In the wild and crazy annals of Free-Agent Contracts You Never Saw Coming, where would you put this one:A two-year, $8 million deal for a 38-year-old closer who hasn't saved a game in 2½ years. Who didn't even throw a pitch -- not counting BP to a bunch of 8-year-olds in the Orangecrest Pony League -- for two years. And whose life had spun so far out there into a whole different orbit, he actually tossed out the ceremonial first ball last Opening Day in Anaheim. All of these amazing facts feed into one of the best stories in anybody's spring training camp: the totally true tale of Troy Eugene Percival, the new closer, clubhouse emperor and professor of positive thinking for the increasingly intriguing Tampa Bay Rays.
Troy Percival is attempting to become the eighth reliever in history to save 30 games at least four seasons after his previous 30-save season. The others, according to the Elias Sports Bureau:
"You know, he hasn't been around very long in the game of baseball," Price deadpans. "So he needed me, with no experience, to tell him where to go."But there was also a method to this madness, naturally. Because Price was required to report to Percival six times a day, it broke down what could have been an impenetrable barrier between the most experienced pitcher on the roster and the least experienced. So Price wound up with a whole different experience in his first big league camp because of it.
"I can talk to him about anything," Price says. "He shows me respect, and I'm 22 years old. So I definitely appreciate that. There are a lot of guys his age, who played in the major leagues as long as he has, who would look at me and say, 'What's he doing in big league camp? What's he done?' But he hasn't been one of those guys. Very nice. Very respectful. Just a real good role model."Price showed his appreciation the day he was assigned to tell the Rays' Joke of the Day, by making Percival the butt of a joke we can't repeat here. Percival then returned the favor, by pasting a giant photo decal of himself onto Price's BMW as a hood ornament, after Price struck out the side in the first spring training outing of his career. At another point this spring, Percival read a story in the newspaper comparing the Rays' three upwardly mobile young starting pitchers -- Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza -- to John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery at the same stage. By the next day, Percival was walking around in a T-shirt that had all six of those names on it -- just to remind his guys they're "not quite there yet."
Then again, says Maddon, "Maybe having sat out a year and a half, who knows how much that revitalized him, and how many more bullets that put back in?"Only time will answer that question. But for now, Professor Percival has a class to teach -- in winning.
"I'm a guy who's sitting here with a contract where a lot of guys are saying, 'I don't get why that's happening right now,'" he admits, readily. "But that's what comes with getting along with people, with knowing how to win and portraying to other people how to win."
The maitre d' of Tampa Bay doesn't take reservations, doesn't set tables, doesn't even cater to VIPs. But he keeps his customers coming back for more, with smiles on their faces. And every day, he writes another act in the best script in baseball. "I don't feel like a maitre d'," Percival says. "I just feel like me." Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.