ST. PETERSBURG — There were plenty of Rays playing with their kids during Sunday's Family Day at Tropicana Field.
Shortstop Jason Bartlett watched his 1-year-old son, Jayden, practice his batting stance at the plate. Lance Cormier pitched to little L.J.
Then there's reliever Russ Springer, whose 10-year-old son, Jake, was about 900 miles away but close to his heart. Jake has autism, a development disorder that affects the brain and can make interacting and communicating with others difficult. Jake loves to swim, jump on trampolines and walk in the woods.
But Jake doesn't understand what his dad does or why he has seen him just seven days since February. He's not big on crowds, or talking on the phone, so Springer has made up songs they can sing together to connect and communicate. "He's my buddy," Springer, 40, said with a smile.
Being closer to his family is a big reason why Springer temporarily retired in 2004 (when Jake was first diagnosed) and why he may make this season — his 17th in the majors — his final one.
In many ways, getting acquired by the Rays from Oakland 10 days ago was a perfect marriage. Springer is excited he has a chance to pitch in his sixth postseason. The Rays love his experience and leadership, with pitching coach Jim Hickey saying that "there's probably not a guy down (in the bullpen) that wouldn't defer to him, or haven't already deferred to him."
To Springer, his entire career has been an unexpected blessing. The self-proclaimed "country boy" never thought he'd play pro baseball coming out of Pollock, La. (population 383), which he says has one stop sign, two cops and friends who ask the avid hunter and fisherman "more about my coondogs than baseball." A serendipitous stop at a tryout his junior year in high school sparked his career, and 716 big-league games later, he still sees baseball with "kid's eyes."
Springer's son and 13-year-old daughter, Karlee — born three years apart on the same day — and his wife, Kelly, his high school sweetheart, make sure of that.
"When you first start hearing about (autism), you don't know what's going on, you want answers, 'why' and all that stuff," Springer said. "But I saw it as a blessing, that God chose us to raise this special child. He's been nothing but a pleasure. He's my buddy, and we have a special relationship."
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Springer envisioned he'd have a blue-collar job like his father, who spent more than 40 years working in a valve plant. Pollock was a sawmill town, with many residents either going into careers in logging or into the military.
Springer loved baseball but was set on joining the Marines until an unexpected stop at a major scouting bureau camp his junior year of high school.
Springer was lanky at 6 feet 3, 175 pounds. Having planned on going swimming that day, he was in cutoff jean shorts and a T-shirt with no sleeves and had long hair. "I looked like Tom Sawyer walking out there," he joked. With other college-type players in uniform pants and such, Springer said the scouts "kind of shooed me off to the side." He was the last one to throw, and the evaluators had turned their back.
"The mitt started to pop," Springer said. "Next thing you know, I was getting scholarship offers." More colleges followed him his senior season, and "then I started thinking: Maybe I'll keep playing for a while."
Springer starred for LSU before being a seventh-round pick with the Yankees in 1989 and has played for nine teams. "It's heartbreaking for Russell every time we leave him or he leaves," Kelly said. "Because he doesn't think Jake understands."
The family hasn't been able to follow Springer because of Jake's special needs. For the past five years, Kelly has had a program at home, where she has trained herself and other people to care for him. Kelly said they've started a foundation, Angel Boy Foundation, that will raise money for other families to pay for that kind of care in the facility in Alexandria, Va.
Springer is a sturdy 6 feet 4, 225 pounds now but speaks with a soft Southern drawl. Still not used to big crowds or cities, he looks forward to the moment he can fall back into anonymity in Pollock; he can look out for the teenage boys who will be courting his daughter, tag along with Jake in his truck.
And Springer will sing the same songs he made up for Jake years ago to help him talk.
"With autism, a lot of times, kids try to shut you out," he said. "I wanted to make sure I was still in his world."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.