PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays reliever Brian Shouse puts a face on the "forever young" phrase.
Just watch Shouse, a 40-year-old left-hander, shagging foul balls in a recent simulated game, laughing and hopping fences, "trying to be like a kid," and you see what he means by not letting "how old you are dictate how you feel."
"He's 40 years old, but if you're around him for two seconds, you'd never know it," said outfielder Gabe Gross, who played with Shouse in Milwaukee.
Shouse's bumpy — and lengthy — big-league journey, one he nearly gave up on a decade ago, is a big reason why he relishes every moment like a Little Leaguer. The Effingham, Ill., native made his major-league debut in 1993 but has only six years of service time in the majors.
Shouse said after making just 13 appearances in the majors his first decade of pro ball, he considered quitting. But one conversation in 2001 with pitching coach Jim Hickey, then with the Astros' Triple-A club, sparked a conversion to an unconventional sidearm delivery, which ended up rejuvenating his career and, ultimately, making him an intriguing offseason acquisition for the Rays.
Manager Joe Maddon sees Shouse, who signed a one-year deal as a free agent, as a reliever who can, like Trever Miller did last season, "match up against some pretty good lefties in our division." But Maddon pointed out that Shouse can also pitch through a tough right-hander on occasion and has experience pitching multiple innings. The Rays like Shouse's strike-throwing ability, his success vs. lefties (.212 average) and how he induces ground balls and fields his position.
But they also love Shouse's determination, the way he stuck through a tough sidearm switch — and stops in 14 minor-league towns — to carve his own niche.
"It's pretty impressive what he did, especially at that age," Hickey said of Shouse's transformation in delivery. "And he was a pretty good pitcher (then), not like it was a last-ditch effort, a broke-down, never-got-out-of- A-ball type guy. He was a pretty solid pitcher."
Shouse said when he made his debut in 1993 with the Pirates, "I thought, 'I'm here to stay.' " But after getting sent down, "next thing you know it's five years later. It was tough, I was thinking, 'Well, maybe my career is done. Maybe I'm just going to be a career Triple-A guy.' "
In 1998, after a seven-game stint with the Red Sox, Shouse went to play in Japan, thinking he'd make a little money before hanging it up. But he got a couple more Triple-A shots before Hickey approached him in 2001 while with New Orleans.
Hickey told Shouse, 32 at the time, that he needed to do something to separate himself from all the other lefties, asking, "Why don't we work on throwing down here?"
Shouse was stubborn at first, thinking he was good enough to do it the conventional way. But after "reteaching myself" how to pitch from a different angle, something he still tweaks to this day, it turned into a boon.
Shouse has appeared in 60-plus games five times in the past six seasons in stints with the Rangers and Brewers. And nearly 20 years after his pro career began, he finally made the playoffs with the Brewers last season, "Something I'll never forget."
"And I'll tell you what," Hickey said. "He's got five or six years (of service) and there's no doubt in my mind he could probably do it for another five or six."
That would make Shouse pitching at age 46. Not like he'd be counting.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]