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Rays MVP flourishes after his long journey

Published Sep. 2, 2005

When the complete history of Tanyon Sturtze's career is written, let it be noted the most critical moment occurred when J.P. Ricciardi dashed across Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, Mass., and ducked into the La Scala Restaurant to use the phone.

Until that hot 1990 summer night, Sturtze was nothing more than a decent athlete who probably wasn't going anywhere except back to the loading trucks at the local beer distributorship run by his buddy's dad.

But Ricciardi, then a prolific scout for the A's and now general manager of the Blue Jays, had seen something in Sturtze a few months earlier.

Watching Sturtze warm up at shortstop before a game for Quinsigamond Community College, Ricciardi noted how well he threw the ball across the infield. He told a friend in the stands Sturtze someday would be a pitcher.

Just before the June draft, Ricciardi got a call from a buddy. The Sturtze kid he had asked about was pitching that night in a summer league game.

"When I finally saw him throw, I just ran over and called in my report from the bar," Ricciardi said. "I told the guy, "Look, I can't write this up and get it on time, so make sure you write it up for me.

"Here's the description: "Tall, lanky kid good arm good athlete. That's all. And I want him.' "

Ricciardi sold his bosses, and the A's took Sturtze in the 23rd round. The pick was something of a surprise. Especially to Sturtze, who got home late from another summer league game that night and was surprised the lights were on at his mother's house.

"My cousin dropped me off, and I get out of the car," Sturtze said. "And my mom meets me at the door, and she's like, "You got drafted by the Oakland A's in the 23rd round.' I was like, "What?' And she's like, "Yeah, you got drafted by the A's in the 23rd round.'

"I really didn't know what to do. I called a few people, and everyone's like, "Go. Go see what happens. Just go and do it.' "

For $5,000 _ "I thought I was rich," he said _ and a plane ticket to Arizona, Sturtze was ready to start a career in pro ball.

Only a fastball

The first thing he had to do was learn how to pitch.

He hadn't been on the mound too much growing up, not for St. Peter-Marian High, once in a while for his American Legion team, never during the year he gave up baseball to play basketball at Vermont Tech and just a handful of times when he transferred back home to Quinsigamond.

"I knew how to throw a fastball, and that was it," Sturtze said.

The beginning was ugly, balls bouncing to the plate and off the backstop. But Sturtze worked at it and got better.

And that became a recurring theme as his made his way slowly through the minor leagues, made it back from 1998 shoulder surgery, made it from fringe player to legit prospect.

He got some confidence with a couple of decent Class A seasons and reached Triple A by 1994. But he wasn't ready when the Cubs brought him up as a 25-year-old Rule 5 draft pick the next year.

"There was no way," Sturtze said. "I knew I couldn't pitch in the big leagues at that time because I didn't know what I was doing."

He ended up back at Triple-A Iowa for most of that year and the next, and the Cubs let him go. He got a shot with the Rangers in 1997. He made it up to pitch in nine games but hurt his shoulder in winter ball and needed surgery.

He was released, re-signed to a minor-league deal, rehabbed and let go again at the end of the 1998 season.

Getting an opportunity

At that point, he was 28 years old with 45 innings in the big leagues and some big-time doubt.

"I don't think I ever said I couldn't do it. I always thought I had to work a little harder than what I was doing," Sturtze said. "I definitely had some days after getting crushed a few outings in a row where you're like, "Man, I don't know if this is for me. Maybe I should go home.'

"After being designated for assignment so many times and after being released, you just kind of say, "My God, what am I doing? Let's go on with my life and try and do something.' "

His breakthrough came in 1999, when he signed with the White Sox, pitched Charlotte into the Triple-A World Series and got called up for a season-finale start.

His big break came the next spring. He made the Sox staff out of camp as a long reliever but didn't take to irregular work. He was about to be released when the Sox and Rays instead agreed to swap spare parts, Sturtze for utility infielder Tony Graffanino.

Saturday night, as Sturtze received his Rays 2001 team MVP award, it was hard not to believe it just might be the best trade general manager Chuck LaMar has made.

"We saw someone who had persevered," LaMar said. "A lot of players at his age and experience level are still playing at Triple A, and that's what they're doing, just playing. We thought we saw someone who was still working to try and make himself better.

"And sure enough, he was just an opportunity away. Sometimes, it takes that second or third opportunity. We were fortunate to be able to give him that opportunity."

Success comes

It wasn't, naturally, that easy. Sturtze pitched his way into decent form by August 2000 but strained an oblique muscle and was done for the season. Last year, then-manager Larry Rothschild tried to make him a setup man, and it didn't work well.

When Hal McRae moved him back to the rotation in May and told him he would pitch every fifth game, Sturtze called it one of the best days of his life.

When he went 11-10 with a 4.32 ERA in 27 starts, when the Rays went 15-12 in his games and 47-88 in the others, when he beat the Yankees three times, it looked pretty good for everyone.

What changed? Technically, Sturtze, 31, became a better pitcher, improving command of his fastball and adding a split-finger pitch to his repertoire.

He learned more about what he was trying to do, how to set up pitches and work hitters. He got more comfortable and more confident on the mound.

And he learned how to focus, how to pitch through things such as his divorce, the loss of his longtime agent, the news that a buddy's wife was among those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"He's different now," said Dick Bosman, the former Texas pitching coach who now works with Rays minor-leaguers. "He's more confident now. That's the thing that had stuck out with me a little bit, that he was not a confident guy.

"Of course, he hadn't done much, and that's something that usually comes with success."

What Sturtze has done is impressive. So is how he has done it.

"I love him. I'm really proud of him. He's the kind of guy you root for," Ricciardi said. "When you're putting together a team, you want guys like him around because you know they're never going to shortchange you.

"They're always going to work hard. They're going to give you an honest day's effort every time out there. And they're going to find a way to try to succeed. I think that's what he's done. He's a survivor, and that's a statement to him."

"That's who you want on your team," teammate Greg Vaughn said. "That's who you want to go to war with. A guy who's been on the bottom; a guy who worked his way to the top; who wasn't given anything; who's had adversity; who's had to battle for everything he's got.

"When Tanyon gets on the field, he takes that warrior-type mentality. You'd like everyone on your team to have that type mentality."

Rewards lie ahead

When pushed, Sturtze admits things have worked out well, that he has proved he can be a starting pitcher in the majors. But he has not forgotten where he came from.

"It's amazing the things that happened for me," Sturtze said. "I've always said I owe everything to J.P. because of what he did for me. First of all, he got me out of that town. I don't want to say Worcester is a trap, but it's a very hard town to get out of.

"It's all working class people, and that's the way you're brought up. J.P. gave me an opportunity to get out of there and to come and try and play every kid's dream."

There are greater rewards ahead. Having just missed arbitration eligibility, Sturtze will make $295,000 this year. With a good season, it could be $2-million or more next year. A long-term contract _ or a midseason trade to a contender _ also are possibilities.

"I've been working really hard because I know this is a big year for me," Sturtze said. "You can do it one year, but if you can do it two years, I think people start to look around and say, "You know, I think he's got his stuff together.' "