ST. PETERSBURG — Alex Cobb vividly recalls the day five years ago when B.J. Upton came off the field in his final game for the Rays before heading to free agency, to a thunderous ovation and a flood of tears.
"I was sitting right here on the bench," Cobb said. "I remember how emotional he was. There were tears in his eyes and he just went down to the end of the dugout and just sat there."
The setting will be different today for Cobb as, save maybe for a cameo delivering the lineup card, he won't get on the field.
But the situation will be very much the same, another tough goodbye for a player who has spent his entire career — 12 years in the organization, seven in the majors — with the Rays and knows, barring what he admits would be a "pleasant surprise" (of an unlikely offer to stay), that he is off to get his tens of millions, or maybe even $100 million, from the Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees or someone else.
Honestly, Cobb is glad he's not pitching today.
"I'm not that guy that wants the spotlight," he said. "And I don't know how I would react. I'm getting emotional just sitting here with you thinking about that scenario. I can't imagine if I was actually doing it — a huge crowd, walking off the mound for the last time to a standing ovation or something."
Friday was emotional enough when he received what amounted to a lifetime achievement honor — the Tampa Bay BBWAA Champion Award given to the player who best exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field — and the 330 fans attending the Clutch Hitters banquet at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park Hotel stood and clapped in appreciation.
"I like to pride myself on anticipating things that are going to happen," Cobb said. "To be up on stage speaking from the heart for a few minutes and then to see the desire from the people in the audience to show any kind of appreciation, to actually stand up and give me an ovation, I didn't know what to do.
"All I did was look around and said, You need to embrace this and remember this and cherish this. I've never had a roomful of people show that much appreciation for me at one time, outside of walking off the mound after a good game, but that's something you're used to. …
"I was like, Wow, they care. What did I do to make them care so much?"
What did he do?
Sure, the 48-35, 3.50 record is quite good, but he never won more than 12 in a season (this year) and won only once in the playoffs, and he missed quite a bit of time due to injuries, including all of 2015 and most of last year.
It has definitely been more about how he has done it.
"As vital as he's been on the mound, he's probably been just as vital in the clubhouse and the way he's carried himself," manager Kevin Cash said Saturday. "He's been vocal when he needs to be vocal, and quiet when he needs to be quiet and grabbed a guy aside. Alex has never really made it about him — he's always made it about the club and about helping his teammates."
Always candid, Cobb said he'd rather be known more for his work on the mound, such as winning the 2013 wild-card game in Cleveland, than his impact in the clubhouse. But the leadership role just evolved as he tried to do what was best for the team.
"I would've written it up better if you'd given me a pen and paper and told me to write out your career," he said. "But now that it's happened the way it has and I've had many people tell me how much of an inspiration or how much they appreciated it or how much they enjoyed it, I wouldn't have it any other way."
Cobb said he hasn't thought yet what it will be like walking out of the Trop today for the last time. Just getting through the past two days has been challenging enough.
"Saying my goodbyes to everybody has been real tough," he said. "That's been really difficult. You don't realize how many relationships you formed over the years."
Or how many memories you made.
The highlights were his debut in May 2011 and that 2013 wild-card win. The low point was getting word in 2015 that he needed elbow surgery. The most valued lessons were learned from David Price on being a supportive teammate, from James Shields on having a "go out there and get the job done" gritty approach, from Evan Longoria on always being professional.
Most of the key players who have left the Rays have been traded — so neither they nor the fans knew it was coming — or were dealt in the offseason. Carl Crawford's final game was uncertain because it came during the 2010 playoff season.
Upton had, arguably, the toughest goodbye, the first homegrown player to leave the Rays after playing until free agency, with no contract extensions. Today Cobb, who twice negotiated long-term deals but never came to agreement, joins him.
As much as he is excited about the future, he is not fond about his farewell.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.