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Roster cuts: A moment no athlete can bear

It is a moment that athletes dread, when the words from a coach or manager can instantly cut short a lifelong dream or change the course of a career.

For five members of the Tampa Bay Bucs, and for many players around the NFL, that time has nearly arrived.

All teams are required to reduce rosters to 75 on Tuesday and to 53 on Saturday — a painful process for players and coaches alike, a time when the proverbial Turk makes his ominous training camp rounds.

The Grim Reaper role applies to the club official designated to deliver the bad news — with a phone call or knock and a request to turn in the playbook.

"The coaches don't actually talk to you — it's the reaper," said Bucs defensive end Greg White, a former Arena Football League star who bounced around six NFL teams before latching on last season.

"It's cold and it's business. That's sometimes how life is."

For the Bucs, the Turk takes the shape of director of player personnel Mark Dominik, and White speaks for many of his teammates when he says, "Hopefully I won't see him this year."

For all players in professional team sports, discovering they are no longer in a team's plans is the cruelest cut of all.

We spoke with personnel from the two bay area franchises now playing, the Bucs and Rays, trying to get a fix on how team honchos deliver their decisions — and how players have handled the unpleasant jolts over the years.

Coaches and managers

"It's tough, because you get attached to these guys," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "You also have a great appreciation for the hard work they've done since the start of the offseason. And we try to give everybody a chance to showcase their stuff. If it's not good enough for us, hopefully they go someplace else and latch on. But that doesn't mean it's not hard and emotional sometimes."

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin stresses to his players to practice as if they're one of the final 53. "But if the time comes and they're not, I tell them they should keep trying to play in the NFL," he said. "I say at the start, 'We're going to coach you really hard, the same as a No. 1 pick. If you don't make it, you'll have tape that every scout, GM and coach can see.' I never approach it like it's the last hurrah."

Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer has been on both sides of the conversation in his 60-plus years in baseball as manager, coach and player. He remembers many heart-wrenching talks with players as a minor-league skipper.

"It was much tougher in the minors," Zimmer said, "because you had a 21-year-old kid whose daddy wanted him to be a major-league ballplayer — and I've got to tell him, 'Everybody can't be a pro ballplayer, son. You'd be better off and go look for some other job and get a new start in life.' That's a killer. And I've had kids cry. I've cried with them."

Zimmer's direct approach has paid off: "I've been surprised in 60 years how many guys have come to me, 15 years later, hollering, 'Hey, Zim, can I talk to you?' I'd think, 'I recognize that guy.' And they'd go, 'I want to thank you.' They'd become vice president of some company. That makes you feel pretty good."

As San Diego Padres manager, Zimmer recalls, he cut a pitcher named Ron Taylor: "I had to call him in my office. I said, 'Big man, we're going in another direction. We're going to release you.' We talked a little, and I felt bad. Well, he shook my hand and left.

"Today he's team doctor of the Toronto Blue Jays."

Releasing a player 25 years ago in the majors, Zimmer said, was particularly hard. "There wasn't a lot of money being made then, and the player you were releasing might have two or three kids and not be able to pay the rent," he said. "Well, today, most of 'em have guaranteed contracts. You release a guy — and he's got $2.5-million coming. It takes a little heat off you."

Rays manager Joe Maddon recently went through the drill with relievers Gary Glover and Al Reyes, who were designated for assignment.

"What I tried to impress upon them is that we truly do appreciate all that they've done for us," he said. "And in both situations, we got them through waivers and asked them back. But they had enough veteran status to choose free agency."

Maddon knows that players he sends to the minors during the season still have a job. "Other times, usually in spring training, you just have to tell somebody, 'That's it.' That's more difficult. But in every case, the most important thing is to be honest."

The players

Unlike in the majors, getting cut in the NFL can mean the end of the line — with no guaranteed contracts to cushion the blow.

Bucs receiver/kick returner Micheal Spurlock had an uncertain future when the Arizona Cardinals cut him last year. He had come to team headquarters the day of the last cuts, worked out, ate and watched film.

"I was like, 'Okay, maybe they've cut everybody and I'm good,' " he said. "I was getting ready to leave, and the guy standing by the gate was, 'No, they need to see you upstairs.' They took my playbook, and I met with (coach) Ken Whisenhunt. He told me I'd been a little inconsistent."

Spurlock asked if there was room for him on the practice squad, but the answer was no. "That hurt," he said. All he could do was go home to his 8-months-pregnant wife and hope for the best. Two days later, his agent arranged a workout with Baltimore, but that same day the Bucs called and offered a tryout.

In less than an hour, he was on a plane to Tampa. Spurlock made the team, only to be released two weeks later. The good news was he was able to be home in Arizona when his wife gave birth, and the Bucs assured him they would re-sign him. A week later, they did, and three months later, on Dec. 16, Spurlock became the first player in the 32-year history of the franchise to return a kickoff for a touchdown.

Then there's Rays power-hitting first baseman Carlos Pena. He was released by the Tigers, Yankees and Red Sox. "Human nature wants you to be discouraged and just walk away," he said. "But I had an incredible support system from my family, a lot of love, and a lot of faith in God."

When the Rays invited Pena to spring training in 2007, he was thrilled.

"But on the last day, they told me there was no space (on the big-league roster)," he said. "I was like, 'I don't believe you, Joe.' I don't know if he thought I was delusional, but I didn't feel like letting go of the enthusiasm and joy I'd had. So I just said, 'I'm on the team, so I'll see you in New York (for the season opener).' Then I walked out."

Pena went home. And as it turned out, then-teammate Greg Norton hurt his knee during an exhibition game later that day — creating an opening.

"It was crazy; it happened in a matter of 12 hours," Pena said. "I was so happy."

Instead of getting cut, he was taking cuts in a whole new game.

Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report. Dave Scheiber can be reached at [email protected]om or (727) 893-8541.

Roster cuts: A moment no athlete can bear 08/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 4:24pm]
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