Petter Gammons, TheAthletic.com (https://theathletic.com/113671/2017/09/29/gammons-on-david-price-and-the-definition-of-what-it-means-to-be-a-good-teammate/)
David Price looks in the rearview mirror of his 2017 season and says, “this has been the most trying year of my career.”
This is a man who went to spring training at age 31, had started 107 games and thrown 753 innings, including post-seasons, in the previous three years. Throughout this season with the Boston Red Sox, he fought through elbow and forearm discomfort, twice spent time on the disabled list, wondered about surgery and his future, and headed to October as a reliever who made 11 starts and pitched a total of 72 innings.
The challenges began in spring training when he traveled around the country for medical examinations on his aching pitching elbow. He returned on May 29, and for seven starts, beginning on June 13, he won five games and allowed a total of 13 earned runs, including a shutout of the New York Yankees on July 16. Vintage Price. Then, in his next outing, he felt the pain in his forearm that would sideline him into September.
“I had been fortunate through most of my career because I’ve been healthy,” Price says. “Almost every athlete misses the competition, misses contributing to the team. But there is something really important that I missed, [something] all competitive athletes miss. Everyone wants to be part of the team, not an observer. You can try to be around and supportive as much as possible, but it’s different when you’re not able to be on the field and contribute. [You] feel like an outsider. Of course, I was focused on getting healthy and getting back to being part of the team and the clubhouse, but it wasn’t the same. If you talked to any major league player, he’d say the same thing.”
It was during that second stretch on the disabled list that Price got caught in a media storm that eventually caused the Boston Globe’s thoughtful writer Chad Finn to pose the question, “Do some want David Price to fail?”
While boarding a team charter flight in July, Price shouted at Red Sox broadcaster, Hall of Fame pitcher and one of the area’s most popular figures, Dennis Eckersley, in front of his teammates. Why? Eckersley blurted out a negative comment when rehabbing pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez’s minor league pitching line flashed on the NESN screen. Eckersley said it with the emotion of a fan. Price did not understand why Eckersley would do that to one of his teammates. They have never talked, before or after the incident, but it grew into a big local story. Eckersley, one of the most accountable athletes many of us have ever known, was embarrassed by the incident.
Price felt like he was defending his teammate, and he considers the role of the teammate one of the most important parts of being a major leaguer. Mark DeRosa, a former big leaguer for 16 years and now an MLB Network commentator says, “we spend more time with our teammates from February until the end of the season than we do with our wives.”
Twice in the week leading up to his return against the Rays this month Price went to the Fenway Park mound for simulated games to test his elbow. It was around 2 p.m., and he wanted to get two and three innings worth of outs against three bench players. In each case, the five other Red Sox starting pitchers came out in support, watching from the manager’s perch in front of the dugout along the dirt.
“That’s how his teammates feel about him,” said pitching coach Carl Willis. Brad Ausmus, Price’s manager in Detroit in 2015, said: “he started that with the Tigers, gathering the other starters when a fellow pitcher came out early to throw a bullpen session or a simulated game that was important to him.”
Over 18 major league seasons, Ausmus caught 1,938 games, seventh most in history. His fourth year as the manager of the Tigers will end this weekend, and the team has already announced that he will not return. As catcher and manager, his job was based on trust and creating conviction. When Price was traded from the Tigers to the Toronto Blue Jays at the trade deadline in 2015, Ausmus told Price “you’re one of the four best teammates I’ve ever been around.” The others Ausmus was referring to? Jeff Bagwell, Luis Gonzalez, and Trevor Hoffman.
Being a solid teammate drives Price, a trait he credits Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, for whom he played three years, for instilling. “Coach Corbin taught me that being a good teammate, being authentic, helping others and winning as a team is what’s important, fulfilling,” Price says. “It makes long seasons shorter. It makes working out fun.
“Let me make it very clear—I’m not the only person who believes in this. There are many pitchers and their teammates who go to [simulated games] together. I know the Cardinals, because of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright and their tradition, have long done that. I see C.C. Sabathia leading the Yankees pitchers that way.”
I asked former Vanderbilt pitcher—and current Colorado Rockies prospect—Ben Bowden if he ever went to the clubhouse after he left a game when he was in school. “What?” Bowden responded. “Of course not. Leave a game and you stay on the bench to root on your teammates. We called that the ‘David Price Rule.’”
Early in 2013, Price was knocked out of a game at Yankee Stadium in the second inning on a soggy night. As the game dragged on past four hours and the Tigers were being beaten badly, Ausmus looked up and down the dugout and noticed Price was still at the other end of the bench. “He was cheering like it was a one-run game,” Ausmus said.
DeRosa is wired into current players as well as anyone in the media business. After the Eckersley controversy, he contacted several players to get a read on Price. “I didn’t play with David,” says DeRosa. “I texted a lot of guys who do [play with him] and had played with him and asked, ‘good dude?,” says DeRosa. “It was amazing. The answers were unanimous—the best.”
“There’s a lot that goes into being what player’s call ‘a good teammate,’” says Price. “Transparency. Accountability. Reliability, both as a player and a friend to others in the clubhouse. Just admit mistakes. When a teammate does well, celebrate with and for him. When you see something is bothering someone, offer your shoulder.
“When I was with the Rays, we had tremendous relationships among the pitchers, and it started with James Shields. In spring training in Port Charlotte, the bullpen was right outside of the clubhouse entrance. So when someone threw, we were all together. We talked about everything, from hitters to situations to struggles. Shields taught [us] a lot because he’d talk about how he’d use different pitches in different situations to particular hitters. That’s part of the teammate bonding experience—sharing thoughts, ideas, insecurities, and sharing with a sense of humor. They’re things that can’t be shared publically.”
Tampa pitcher Chris Archer has long talked about how much he learned from that group of Rays, particularly Price, whom he used to call “a big brother.” As Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello says, “guys take that camaraderie very seriously.” When told that Ausmus says Price doesn’t care what people on the outside think, that Price only cares how he is perceived in the clubhouse as a leader and a person Porcello answers, “exactly.”
Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter defines a good teammate as being “sincere because no matter what people on the outside think or hear, players are really smart when it comes to knowing insincerity and selfishness. Preparation is a big part because everyone needs to prepare to not let the team down. A good teammate thinks before he acts; he doesn’t throw a stupid pitch at someone or take a cheap shot sliding into a base when a teammate is going to [suffer] the retaliation. A good teammate knows to think before he speaks; words have meaning, and it can’t be about one person, it’s about team, and while players say they don’t read the papers or hear the quotes, they do.
“One of the best managers with whom I ever worked once said, ‘beware of people whose I’s are too close together, and remember players are very aware of those guys because they can rupture clubhouses.’”
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who was always considered a model teammate during his 10 years in the majors, wants players to be “sensitive to the needs of everyone wearing the same uniform.” Indians President Chris Antonetti says “it’s vitally important to prepare every day to perform as best you can for your teammates first and their chance to win, and yourself second. Good teammates put their teammates and the team first.”
(It doesn’t always work that way. The Red Sox of the late 1970s were a me-first team. Late one night, waiting for cabs after a flight into Minneapolis, pitchers Tom Burgmeier and Steve Renko watched one player after another hail cabs for themselves, starting the “25 guys, 25 cabs” line that became an infamous running joke around the league.)
Dodgers players have stories about Chase Utley supporting his teammates that could fill a book. For instance, in one game early last season, Clayton Kershaw was having problems getting strikes called. At the end of an inning, catcher A.J. Ellis got back to the dugout and was screaming at the home plate ump. Utley told Ellis to shut up. Chase then took the batboy’s jacket and cap, gathered a towel, water bottle and some baseballs, and went out to the ump as if he were the batboy. As he handed over the traditional between-inning sundries, and just as the ump realized it was Utley, Chase said, “Look, I don’t want to show you up, I don’t want anyone to see what’s going on, but Clayton’s gotta have those pitches.”
Late last season, with the Dodgers up by seven runs in the eighth inning, a young, inexperienced player stole third base with two outs, infuriating the Milwaukee Brewers. Utley led off the top of the ninth and told Brewers catcher Martin Maldonaldo to have the pitcher drill him with a pitch. “It’s the only way [our] guy is going to learn there are ramifications for every action,” Utley told Maldonado.
Showalter remembers that when Mark Teixeira was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2001, fellow first baseman Rafael Palmeiro gave him no support. In contrast, Showalter remembers that late in Don Mattingly’s career, when prospect J.T. Snow was promoted to the big leagues, Mattingly worked with him all the time and told him, “someday this will be your position.” And when rookie first baseman Greg Bird came up with the Yankees in 2015, Teixeira mentored him.
When Derek Lowe was with the Dodgers in 2006, he said, “Greg Maddux taught me how to watch a game, how to study video, how to work at pitching. He was a professor who loved being your advisor.” As soon as Kershaw got to the big leagues, he could be spotted most nights sitting next to Maddux in the dugout, soaking in the knowledge.
When Julio Iglesias arrived at his first spring training with the Red Sox less than 10 months after coming to the United States from Cuba in 2011, Dustin Pedroia and his wife, Kelli, had Iglesias to their house three times to help ease Jose’s difficult transition.
One name that comes up with virtually every MVP and best teammate discussion is Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks. “I tried to take him out of blowouts in Colorado two days in a row,” says manager Torey Lovullo. He said, ‘no chance… please take someone else out because I know I have teammates that need it [rest] more than I do.”
Which brings us back to where we started, the discussion of David Price. Some observers have wondered if he is too sensitive, too insecure, to survive in Boston, a traditionally tough town to play in, and have pointed to that incident with Eckersley as an example. Price insists that he will be fine. Without saying it, he knows his $30 million salary is always going to be his middle name.
In calling around about Price, I had four managers tell me, “you’d be surprised by how many great players are insecure.”
“It can be a good thing,” Porcello says about a player’s insecurity. “A motivational thing. Something that drives a person to prepare and compete and play to a level he might not have reached. It may drive him to be concerned with how he is perceived by his teammates.”
In the closing days of this trying season, Price knows “public perception is going to depend on winning. I have to pitch well and help the Red Sox win, anyway I can. If we win, I’ll be the happiest I’ve ever been in baseball.”
His role will be to pitch out of the bullpen in two- and three-inning stints, similar to what Andrew Miller did to help the Indians reach the World Series last year. He is fully aware of his 2-8 post-season record; he never talks about his two strong games against the Red Sox to put the Rays into the 2008 World Series or exceptional outings in the 2013 and 2015 post-seasons.
“The numbers are what they are,” Price says. “I want the fans to like me because I win. I get that. But I want to pitch well for the guys in the clubhouse. I learned at Vanderbilt that baseball is about the relationships that go into winning, which is the goal we all work together to achieve.”