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Fontenot bids for Rays roster spot

PORT CHARLOTTE — In some ways, Mike Fontenot has come full circle.

The Rays veteran utility infielder has no regrets for how his career has gone, playing parts of seven big-league seasons, going to the playoffs three times and winning a World Series with San Francisco in 2010.

But Fontenot, 32, can't help but think back to how things might have been different had he not set foot in that introductory anthropology class at LSU in the fall of 1999 and instead signed with the then-Devil Rays, who had drafted him in the 21st round.

Fontenot said it was a "last-minute" decision, one he wrestled with for a long time, enticed by the $200,000 offer from Tampa Bay to follow his professional dreams.

"I remember not sleeping all night, not knowing which way I wanted to go," he said.

The day classes were supposed to start at LSU, Fontenot figured he would make up his mind while making the 90-mile drive with his father, Mike Sr., from their Slidell home to campus. They stopped at his apartment, and Fontenot ended up going to class, showing up a little late in the packed auditorium, squeezing into a seat in the top row.

"I remember walking into the class, there was like 300 people in there," Fontenot said. "And I'm like, 'What am I doing? I should have signed.'

"But everything has worked out."

Fontenot bet right on Baton Rouge, earning national freshman of the year honors and leading LSU to the College World Series title in 2000. After his sophomore year, he was the Orioles' first-round pick (19th overall) in 2001, netting a much bigger bonus of $1.3 million.

"At the end of the day, I just wanted to experience college, try to stay healthy and see what happens," he said. "I had a great couple years."

Fontenot didn't make his big-league debut until 2005 with the Cubs, making three straight opening day rosters (2008-10), including two playoff berths (both sweeps).

His luck changed in August 2010, when he was acquired by the Giants in their playoff push. Fontenot started four games in the postseason, going 3-for-14, and nearly had one at-bat in the World Series.

Fontenot was on deck when the Rangers brought in a lefty, and he was called back to the dugout.

"I could have hit off the lefty, what's the worst that could have happened?" he said, joking. "But that was pretty special, a chance to go through all that."

Fontenot, who signed a minor-league deal with the Rays in November, said walking into their spring training clubhouse and feeling the fun atmosphere and seeing all the beards and tattoos, it reminded him a lot of the Giants.

"That's what it takes," Fontenot said. "I feel like it makes you play looser."

He said he hopes he can be part of a playoff run with the Rays at some point this season.

Manager Joe Maddon has been impressed with Fontenot, a 5-foot-8, 170-pound left-handed hitter, saying he hasn't had a bad at-bat all spring. Fontenot, who has played shortstop, second and third in the majors, has also shown his versatility, even spending time in the outfield.

"I love him," Maddon said. "He's a baseball player, man. He's one of those guys who will be great in the clubhouse. He's a winning player; he's the kind of guy that would do anything it takes to win.

"Every at-bat is quality, he doesn't give anything up, and he hits the ball hard. … I'm a big fan."

For Fontenot, finally part of the team that originally picked him, it's better late than never.

"I have a chance to experience the organization, not as early as I could have," he said. "But I'm happy with it."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

Fontenot bids for Rays roster spot 03/15/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 1:11am]

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