ST. PETERSBURG — For Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir, getting a chance to start tonight's opening game of the World Series was worth all the trouble it took to get there.
Kazmir, a two-time All-Star, has pitched his share of meaningless games in front of sparse crowds for last-place teams. For a few years, Kazmir, 24, was likely the main attraction for a Rays franchise with little else to celebrate.
But when Kazmir takes the mound tonight against the Phillies at sold-out Tropicana Field, he says the moment will be worth the wait.
"It's worth everything right now, being in the World Series," he said. "After three or four years of getting everything together."
Those close to Kazmir say the 6-foot southpaw has gotten to the center of the baseball world by using two potentially deflating moments as fuel to his fire: an unexpected drop on draft day, and the 2002 trade to the then-Devil Rays.
They say he's the same modest kid who grew up in a middle-class home in the Houston suburbs, who loves the big games and, as high school coach Brent McDonald says, "has the composure of a 30-, 35-year-old man."
"Through high school, through anything he did, he was gonna be the best," said Clint Everts, Kazmir's teammate at Cypress Falls High who was drafted No. 5 by the Expos in 2002. "To go through the minor leagues like that, and get traded, he went to a new organization and had to prove himself again. … He's one of those guys that comes around every 50 years."
McDonald, the longtime former Cypress coach, said he may never see a stretch like Kazmir had his junior year, when he pitched four straight no-hitters. Kazmir was an all-around athlete, the "tough as nails" quarterback who loved lifting weights and running an option attack, a slugger who would take batting practice without spikes.
But in an area that also produced Red Sox ace Josh Beckett, Kazmir's dominance was tough to top. McDonald said with Kazmir striking out 17 a game, his team wouldn't even take ground balls in practice and quipped that Kazmir would "walk guys on purpose so he could pick them off."
And with 70-75 scouts at every game, Kazmir's four no-hitters were just the icing on the cake. "It was like you're playing Nintendo, but you can't even do that on Nintendo," said Everts, who pitched this season for the Class A Potomac Nationals.
Kazmir, who committed to play for Texas, was expecting to get drafted No. 3 in 2002 by the Reds, according to McDonald. But the night before the draft, the Reds dropped Kazmir for someone they thought would sign for less. The next day, Kazmir dropped to No. 15 with the Mets — 10 spots lower than his buddy, Everts.
"That's something, and the trade; that really fueled his fire even more," McDonald said. "He wanted to prove them all wrong for passing on him, and now he's proving the Mets wrong."
Kazmir said he was surprised when the Mets traded him in July 2004 for Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato. But McDonald said it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the Rays gave him the chance to make his debut at age 20 that season, and he became the ace of the staff soon after.
Two All-Star appearances later, Kazmir hasn't changed a bit.
When Kazmir signed out of high school, he offered to give $10,000 back to his alma mater. Six weeks ago, he was still sharing with his communitysending a box filled with Rays hats, shirts and backpacks to McDonald's home for his family.
"Everyone in my school is sick of seeing Rays gear," McDonald joked.
Everts said though there are no Rayhawks in the area, the town is buzzing in Tampa Bay blue.
"He's still the same kid, still modest even though he has the big contract," McDonald said. "The last time I talked to him, he was walking into Yankee Stadium for the All-Star Game. He said, 'You've gotta see my locker right now. It's awesome.'
"He's the same Scott."
Just look at him now.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]