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Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price willingly pays a price for stardom

Speaking to a group that helps African-American and Hispanic men go to college, David Price discussed forgoing about $1 million in order to go to Vanderbilt.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Speaking to a group that helps African-American and Hispanic men go to college, David Price discussed forgoing about $1 million in order to go to Vanderbilt.

TAMPA

The podium was obviously not designed for a man of this size. Even if he leans slightly forward, the stationary microphone remains far from his mouth, making his words sound almost hushed in the large ballroom.

In a way, it makes sense, for it was hard to know what to expect when David Price showed up. Many already know him as a Cy Young Award contender. And some may have heard about him as a clubhouse goofball. But David Price as a motivational speaker? This is something the world has yet to see.

So as he stares out at the crowd of 200 or so in a luxury Tampa hotel, the 6-foot-6 left-hander admits the thought of this moment had left him terrified earlier in the week.

"I'm still a little scared right now," Price begins, "but we're going to get through this."

He is here because he was asked. Because he believed in the cause of Black, Brown & College Bound, an organization dedicated to helping African-American and Hispanic males fulfill their college dreams.

He is here because he decided some time ago that one of the surcharges of celebrity is the obligation to use it for a greater good.

And so he begins talking, never glancing down at the handwritten bullet points on the note card in front of him. He sounds hesitant and unsure. He also sounds real and sincere.

Price never mentions he was on the mound when Tampa Bay won Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series and advanced to the World Series. He never talks about starting ahead of Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte in the 2010 All-Star Game.

He doesn't talk about being on the cover of Sports Illustrated or being the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft. He doesn't mention the time Tommy Lasorda called his home and offered a ransom's worth of cash when the Dodgers made a run at him out of high school.

Instead, Price talks about his pursuit of a sociology degree at Vanderbilt. How, since signing an $8.5 million contract with the Rays in '07, he has completed another 17 credit hours and is a semester shy of graduation.

"I was 18 years old, and I had a chance to sign, I guess, for around $1 million. For an 18-year-old, that's a ton of money. That's money I wanted right then and there," Price said. "But I sat down and talked with my parents. I told them I didn't think I was ready.

"I wasn't a man. I wasn't mature enough to play (professional) baseball. I was still a little boy. My mom did my laundry. She made all of my food. She did everything for me. I wasn't ready to be in the real world by myself.

"That was the best decision I ever made, to not (sign) out of high school and go to college."

A day later, he will talk about the impact of looking out at a roomful of faces that were not so different from his own. At 25, he already has earned more money than most people will make in a lifetime, but he is not far removed from his days as a full-time student.

That's what he saw when he addressed the audience during this speech and afterward when he stayed to pose for pictures and sign autographs. The same kind of expectant and eager and hopeful faces he once wore.

Now that he is away from the crowd, he talks more about growing up in a small town in Tennessee collecting David Justice baseball cards. About leaning over the rail at the big-league ballpark in Atlanta trying to get his hero's autograph.

"When I'm walking by a group of kids, I try to remember that. I try to think about what it was like when I was a kid and how much it meant to me," Price said. "It's a big responsibility being in this position. I'm under a microscope both on and off the field, and I have to remember that whenever I'm making decisions."

He has been this way from the moment he arrived in Tampa Bay. Even as a rookie in 2008, when he had less than 10 big-league appearances on his resume, Rays officials knew they could depend on Price no matter what the situation.

So the Rays put the ball in Price's hand to get the final four outs with a 3-1 lead in Game 7 of the ALCS that October. And a week later, on the morning of Game 5 of the World Series, it was Price they approached when a Philadelphia-area hospital asked if a player might stop by to visit a young boy with cancer.

"He has his 13-year-old moments, and he has his 30-year-old moments. And I love that about him," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's like a big kid, but he transforms when the moment calls for it. A lot of players give you lip service about wanting to be the best. With David, it's no joke. He really is driven to be the best."

Back in the ballroom, Price is still going. His day began 11 hours earlier in the clubhouse in Port Charlotte, included a 100-mile drive to Tampa, the speech and now a question-and-answer period with another 100-mile trip back to Port Charlotte still to come.

The session is winding down when someone asks how his experiences in baseball can be applied to real life. And for the first time, Price is stumped.

It never occurs to him that he is immersed in the answer. That baseball and his life have become intertwined and impossible to separate.

He is wealthy, famous and cele­brated in baseball because he cared enough to make it happen. And he is here in a ballroom of strangers for the same reason.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price willingly pays a price for stardom 02/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 9:46pm]
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