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New Tampa Bay Rays reliever Kyle Farnsworth intimidating on mound, has mellowed off

PORT CHARLOTTE — He bakes holiday cookies, a tasty peanut butter criss-cross. Lives in the Disney-fied community of Celebration, dropping the kids off at private school. Sits quietly in the clubhouse, laughing at videos on his phone, speaking softly when spoken to.

This is the baddest man in baseball?

Well, no, not when Kyle Farns­worth is calling himself "a big teddy bear," glowing about his wife, kids and fighter jet-flying father, reflecting on giving up drinking two years ago or chuckling over the ESPN The Magazine article that bestowed said title upon him.

Hell, yes, though, when he's on the mound.

"I'm not going out there trying to intimidate anybody." Farns­worth said. "I think I've been in the game long enough, everybody knows my reputation as it is. So it's not like I have to go out there and flip someone on their back every now and then. But I'll do it if I think it needs to be done."

The arsenal the now 34-year-old Farnsworth brings as the most experienced member of the reconstructed Rays bullpen includes a fastball that can still approach 100 mph, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound taut and tattooed body you'd find in an NFL locker room and a glare from behind his glasses that might be best described as disturbing.

But as most anyone who has stood 60 feet 6 inches away with only a stick in his hands attests, Farnsworth's most effective weapon is the fear of what could happen next.

"That's a very intimidating man out there," said leftfielder Johnny Damon, who has played with and against Farnsworth. "Everyone has seen the highlights of him just beating someone down. … Any time he gets up to start throwing in the bullpen, everyone knows that intimidation factor, and they know what he's all about."

"If there was a scale of 1-10," says Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, "he'd be pretty close to a 10 — the way he carries himself, his mentality, his demeanor on the field."

Just the threat alone can be effective, with catcher Kelly Shoppach saying he'd be constantly in doubt at the plate over what Farnsworth was trying to do: "And I was afraid if I made him mad, he might charge me."

More so, given the case history. Farnsworth's 2003 technically perfect pursuit, tackle and takedown, plus subsequent pummeling, of Reds pitcher Paul Wilson — captured in photographs and still-popular video — remains his greatest hit, though a similar 2005 tussle with Royals reliever Jeremy Affeldt is close.

"He went crazy wanting to fight everyone," said Affeldt, now with the Giants. "I've been in the weight room with him after that working out, and there's no bitterness. It's like it never happened. Kind of weird."

Add the time Farnsworth got suspended for throwing behind a certain dreadlocked Boston slugger (who now lockers 20 feet from him), kicked an electric fan so hard he landed on the DL and other highly charged moments that led to the May 2010 ESPN article. That and a first-place finish in a poll of major-leaguers on whom they'd least like to fight.

"During the games, I'm intense," Farnsworth said. "It's kind of a little switch I put on. You have to be a fierce competitor out there."

So he talks about how he pitches with "a controlled rage" and views each confrontation with a hitter as "war without casualties in a way." And then he suggests that he has actually mellowed a bit, that age, maturity, marriage and fatherhood have all contributed to make him more relaxed and calm.

One change Farnsworth, a nonpracticing Mormon, has made is sobriety, deciding two years ago that the late-night parties and early morning pain (which had spawned something of a wild man reputation during his six seasons with the Cubs) were no longer worth it.

"I was just tired of drinking," he said. "I'd done it for a while and realized it caused more problems than good. And I didn't want my kids to grow up to see it either. I feel a lot better every morning now, and I have no desire to do it. My wife always tries to get me to do it: 'You can have one.' And I'm like, 'No, I'm going on two years, I'm gonna see how long I can go.' "

That competitiveness and machismo thread runs through everything he does: high-intensity workouts, martial arts training, marksmanship, paint ball and his beloved hunting, as he switched from gun to crossbow five years ago to make it more challenging as he pursues deer, turkey and hogs on his 2,500-acre plot in Georgia that is his favorite getaway.

The best Farnsworth can explain the split personality — the difference between "the relaxed Kyle and the competitive Kyle" — is a product of his life experience, going back to a humble childhood in Georgia, being cut from his high school team as a junior, having to overcome being a 47th-round draft pick.

Those who have been with him say he's great company — and not only when there's a brawl. "A very nice guy to be around," Damon said. "And also to be walking around with."

And those just getting to know him see why.

"He's an awesome dude," Longoria said. "Definitely the opposite of what you would think as an opposing player."

In essence, Farnsworth has it both ways.

"I just go out there and be aggressive," he said. "I'm definitely not going to be intimidated by anybody at the plate. I've faced numerous hitters. No one's going to scare me. If they try to do it, they're just wasting their time."

New Tampa Bay Rays reliever Kyle Farnsworth intimidating on mound, has mellowed off 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 10:37pm]
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