ST. PETERSBURG — Baseball can be a brutal business. Just ask Rays outfielders John Rodriguez and Jon Weber.
The scrappy, 30-year-old left-handers have scratched and clawed through a combined 17 years in the minor leagues. But though the undrafted journeymen are not guaranteed to break camp with the Rays, they still play with the same exuberance as kids in sandlots.
There's Rodriguez, a soft-spoken "penny pincher" from the Manhattan projects, break-dancing during a light moment in the clubhouse.
There's Weber, a jokester from a blue-collar SoCal suburb, nearly breaking his nose crashing into the centerfield wall while making a catch during a recent morning workout. To get a rise out of Weber, bench coach Dave Martinez made a mock chalk outline of the outfielder's body on the Al Lang wall, "RIP Weber 63."
"But I held on," Weber quipped.
With Rocco Baldelli's availability a question, Weber and Rodriguez are hoping to catch on as the fifth outfielder. Though the club is giving both (each hitting below .200 this spring) a hard look, they could get edged out by hot-hitting veteran Eric Hinske.
"I'm not going to take the easy way out," Weber said. "They're gonna have to kick me out of the stadium."
Neither has taken the easy road here.
'Dream hasn't ended'
Rodriguez labored for more than eight years in the minors before his first shot in the big leagues. He said he never quit because he "didn't want to go home."
Home was the Manhattan projects, where with his single mother Elba and older sister Lisette he "didn't know where the next meal was going to come from." He would stay up, throwing a ball against the wall, visualizing World Series scenarios.
First, he'd have to battle. In November 1996, Rodriguez hustled his way into a Yankees tryout in Yankee Stadium ("My uncle knew a cop, who knew a scout"). Rodriguez caught a break with St. Louis in 2005, becoming a midseason callup when Reggie Sanders got hurt. "From there," Rodriguez said. "It was storybook." Rodriguez played in 102 games during the Cardinals' World Series run in 2006. "Dreams definitely do come true," Rodriguez said. "But my dream hasn't ended yet."
A 'stubborn' star
The glass display case in the locker room at Lakewood High in California serves as the baseball program's Wall of Fame. Legendary coach Spud O'Neil has had more than 25 players sign pro contracts in his quarter century there, from former Rays Damion Easley and Chris Gomez to Phillies prospect Travis d'Arnaud; each has his baseball card prominently placed in the case.
"I can't wait to put one of mine in there," Weber said.
O'Neil has no doubts Weber will: "He's the most ornery son of a gun around. … He's had this goal and he's just so stubborn — he'll do it."
Weber's passion "reminds you why you play the game," Rays infielder Chris Richard said.
And it shows why Weber isn't giving up. Manager Joe Maddon said Weber, a career .285 hitter, may have less power than Rodriguez but has more versatility defensively and "has one of the strongest arms in camp."
Will it be enough?
O'Neil said he's crossing his fingers. "Once he gets there — he'll stay."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]