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Tampa Bay Rays latest stop in epic journey for Jesus Feliciano

PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays outfielder Jesus Feliciano believes he can write a book on his journeyman baseball career.

Right-hander James Shields goes one further: "You probably could do a movie on him."

It'd be a picture on perseverance, as Feliciano battled for 13 minor-league seasons — 1,271 games — before getting his first sniff of the majors, in a 2010 callup with the Mets. Feliciano, a 32-year-old from Puerto Rico, has traveled on buses in a dozen minor-league towns, from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Orlando, and Bakersfield, Calif., to Buffalo.

"I've played everywhere, pretty much," he said, smiling.

But what might be most impressive and a symbolic example of Feliciano's determination was what he did in his first stint with Tampa Bay, back in 2004.

Feliciano had been released by the Dodgers, which drafted him in the 36th round in 1997, coming off a season in which he hit .148 in Double A.

"I thought I was almost done with baseball," he said. "I didn't have anything to lose."

Desperate, Feliciano converted to pitcher, something he had done until he was 18 years old. A left-hander, he threw a curve and changeup, and he had success for the Rays' Class A affiliate in Bakersfield, giving up just one run over 51/3 innings.

"He was nasty," said Shields, Feliciano's teammate in Bakersfield. "Threw 89-90, with a nice little hook. He was a real good pitcher."

An elbow injury ended Feliciano's pro pitching career after just 61/3 innings. Told he'd need rehab, and potentially surgery, Feliciano decided to switch back to a position player. That winter, he won the batting title in Puerto Rico, with the successful turnaround "the most impressive thing I had in my career."

"He's like, 'I think this hitting thing is a little better for me,' " Shields said, laughing.

After hitting better than .300 for four consecutive seasons for the Mets' Triple-A affiliate, Feliciano finally got his shot June 7, 2010, getting called up to the big leagues. He played in 54 games over two separate stints, living a lifelong dream, with his parents and sister flying in from Puerto Rico for his debut.

"It was something I was expecting for so long, that when I got it, I knew I deserved it," Feliciano said. "It was great to be around the guys, they knew how tough my career had been, they were so happy to see me there."

Feliciano has baseball in his blood, with his father, also named Jesus, playing for Puerto Rico at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.

"He's a legend back home," the younger Feliciano said. "I'm real proud of what he's done, and I'm sure he's proud of what I've done, too."

Feliciano followed in his father's footsteps, playing for Puerto Rico in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, starting in leftfield alongside major-league veterans Carlos Beltran and Alex Rios.

Feliciano said his father, now 55, is still in baseball, managing in Puerto Rico. Neither wants to leave the game, with Feliciano taking a chance on a minor-league deal with the Rays. He's grateful and thankful for his life in baseball, still hopeful for another chance, though complete if it doesn't come.

"It's been a nice run," Feliciano said. "Being here again, looking at all those stories that I have, it's good to remember."

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

Tampa Bay Rays latest stop in epic journey for Jesus Feliciano 03/04/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 4, 2012 9:33pm]

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