Though Rays right-hander Alex Cobb spent just the first two years of his life in Boston before moving to Florida, his family returned nearly every summer for a vacation.
And they'd almost always take in a game at Fenway Park, where Cobb would wear his Red Sox jersey. His favorite players were pitchers Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, and he envisioned taking to the same mound some day in the majors.
Cobb gets that chance tonight, albeit wearing a different jersey, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I wouldn't trade it for what I have, being with the Rays," Cobb said. "I like where I'm at."
Cobb, 24, is relishing his extended opportunity with Tampa Bay, stepping in the rotation for likely a couple of months to fill in for injured starter Jeff Niemann. He has had to wait his turn, spending most of his first six professional seasons in the minors, admittedly disappointed when he was sent down to Triple A in spring training. But Cobb hopes to give the Rays a similar lift as he did in the second half last season, when he went unbeaten in his first seven big-league starts.
"We absolutely would not have reached the postseason without Alex and what he did," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He's got a really bright future for us."
To hear Cobb's older brother, R.J., tell it, Alex was destined to live his "dream." The two went different directions since playing catch in the back yard at their Vero Beach home, which included a mound their father, Rick, built. R.J., 28, a captain in the U.S. Army, said Alex was an "all-American kid," star high school quarterback and pitcher, and homecoming king.
"It's the kind of thing you only see in movies," R.J. said.
R.J. said Alex always has remained humble, a lesson taught by their late mother, Lindsay Miller-Cobb, who died from a stroke at age 49 when Alex was a senior in high school.
"It's like she saw (Alex's success) coming," R.J. said.
Cobb said he admires his older brother for how he has served his country — stationed three years in Germany before spending 16 months in Iraq, with another deployment coming this year. Cobb gained perspective when R.J. received a Purple Heart after his Humvee was blown up in Iraq in 2008, lodging shrapnel in his hands. R.J. said it was a one-man ambush, with a grenade exploding around them.
"If by some chance I didn't believe in God, I certainly did after that," said R.J., now stationed in Fort Campbell, Ky. "If any single variable was different where if we were going a half-mile per hour faster, or the wind was blowing in a slightly different direction, I'm convinced at least one of us would have been killed."
R.J. is more "amazed" with Alex, how he keeps his composure in front of thousands of fans, though Rick says both his sons are "cool under fire."
"(Alex) has this demeanor about him, nothing really gets to him out there," fellow starter Jeremy Hellickson said. "He doesn't get too high or too low."
Manager Joe Maddon has compared Cobb to Hellickson, the reigning AL rookie of the year, in both their calm mound presence to their repertoire of pitches: low 90s fastball, changeup and curve.
Hellickson sees the onfield similarities, but as Cobb's roommate during spring training, he points out Cobb is more of a talker and the "messier" one of the two. Hellickson does agree with Cobb on one key point, he belongs in the big leagues. "He's ready," Hellickson said. "He's deserved a shot."
While Cobb's stay is temporary, likely heading back to Triple-A Durham once Niemann returns, he feels more settled into his new home, getting his own place in the Clearwater area. He bought a dog, an American bulldog named Axel, after last season's surgery, and the 2006 fourth-round pick hopes to be a Ray for a long time.
Rick said he took the Red Sox stuff down from his house when Cobb was drafted, though he admits it's tough to completely change the allegiances of the around 40 family members that live in the Boston area. Even R.J. wore a Red Sox hat to one of Cobb's starts last year.
"They're still Red Sox fans unless Alex is pitching," Rick said. "But we'll be rooting for the Rays (tonight)."