Sunday, January 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays rookie Matt Moore as impressive a person as he is a pitcher

PORT CHARLOTTE

Marty Moore was proud and excited, of course, when his 22-year-old son, Matt, called with the startling news that he would make his second major-league start the next day in the Rays' AL Division Series opener at Texas, but he also was concerned.

"Are you going to be all right?" Marty, the longtime Air Force man, asked.

"Dad," Matt answered, "they're not asking me to do anything I'm not good at."

Marty heard confidence, not cockiness, in the reply, and he knew right then Matt would be fine. The rest of the world found out the next afternoon, when Moore was more than good, throwing seven shutout, two-hit innings against the Rangers.

Moore's pitching during his rapid rise to prominence has been dazzling enough, but what has impressed — and encouraged — the Rays even more is how he has handled himself.

There has been fame, what with his ascension through the minors, his late-season promotion to the majors and his coronation as the game's top pitching prospect. There has been fortune, as he agreed in December to a long-term deal that guarantees him $14 million over five years and could be worth $40 million over eight.

And there's the same Matt.

He shows up early. He listens intently. And he works hard — as hard as anyone else in Rays blue.

"That's something that's special about him," said veteran starter James Shields, whose own work ethic is considered the gold standard. "A lot of guys you have to come in here and really show work ethic and show routines and really show what the big-league level is all about. With him, you really don't. He just goes about his business, he has a great work ethic, he has a nice little routine."

"He's doing all the right stuff right now," starter David Price added. "And that's good to see."

Whatever gambles the Rays took in accelerating Moore's progress to the majors last season, in thrusting him onto the postseason stage, in rewarding him richly so quickly were based as much on what they saw from him as what they saw in him.

"It's because of the kind of kid that he is," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "He has a very solid makeup. He's really grounded. He's very respectful, very accountable, very responsible. All the things that you would hope in a guy. …

"I think everybody involved in all of those decisions has done a lot of homework or is at least extremely aware of the type of person that he is. And I think that's probably the overriding factor in the whole thing, maybe apart from the huge talent that he is, is that they are quite certain he could handle it."

Matt wasn't always the mature and responsible one, Marty says. Despite the regimen of a career military family, Matt had his moments, like the time he got ticketed for doing doughnuts in his school's gravel parking lot as the school resource officer watched. Or when he took a chunk of his $115,000 signing bonus (as a 2007 eighth-round pick) and bought a Saleen Mustang that was too fast for his own good — and he ended up selling after 18 months and several speeding tickets.

"He was a normal, typical, even goofy kid," Marty Moore said. "He did all the things the other kids did, and got in trouble when he was supposed to and got away with a few, I suppose.

"But he knew what to do and when to do it. I've told him, 'Matt, you always wind up doing the right thing, you just make me think you're not going to right up until the last minute.' "

Matt's grades were good (B's or better to play sports was the family rule) and his priorities straight. After settling in New Mexico at age 11 — having been born in Fort Walton Beach and living four years in Japan — he spent much of his time playing basketball, golf and, of course, baseball.

Marty coached him through high school, and that, more than anything, may be the reason Matt is grounded.

"Nobody pumped any sunshine," Marty said. "If it was good, it was good. And if it was bad, it was bad. … How much more pressure can there be than playing for your old man every day? I used to tell him, 'Son, you've got to be good because that's my last name you have on your back out there.' "

Matt credits his parents, and older brother Bobby, for shaping him, and framing his beliefs in thinking positively, remaining humble and not taking himself too seriously. (As proof, he shares that one of his favorite things to do is talk with his buddies in movie quotes.)

"It's just the way I handle my business," he said.

Moore has the maturity to maintain that his success won't get to him, saying, "Why would any of this change me? I am who I am." He has used some of his newfound wealth to help out family and friends and says, once the season starts, he'll look into upgrading from the dirty tan 2008 Chevy Malibu he has been driving.

He also has the perspective to realize it won't always be easy. One of his favorite phrases — texted to him by Double-A Montgomery chapel leader Paul Payne — is "Struggle Well."

"From anything as small as a set in the weight room to getting shelled on the baseball field to my personal life, I understand there is struggle to come, and I'm going to have to overcome those things," Moore said. "And I'm not afraid of them."

Amid grand expectations and chatter about rookie of the year and Cy Young awards, Moore's immediate challenge is winning a spot in the season-opening rotation. The Rays claim — with straight faces — it's not guaranteed, even though the new contract removed any potential financial disincentives, and the left-hander properly follows their lead, saying, "My hopes for this season are obviously to pick up where I left off."

"He is who he is," Marty said. "He's living the dream, and he understands that."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]ay.com.

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