PORT CHARLOTTE — Ryne Stanek is a free spirit. Life flows from him like his mane of hair, his apostle look. Stanek approaches things a little differently.
“I feel like I’m kind of a goofy cat, just always messing around,” Stanek said. “I never take myself or anything too seriously.”
Baseball has caught up with him.
So, when Rays manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder approached Stanek last season about starting games after Rays closer Sergio Romo started the fad in May, the rookie right-hander embraced it.
“It’s definitely weird,” Stanek said. “I was just going out there, pitching as I was told, trying to establish myself as a big-league ballplayer. I’m not going to say it’s not cool. It’s pretty cool. I’ve always been a quirky kind of guy. This fits kind of me being kind of weird.”
Stanek has a fan in Atlanta, Ga. The fan is 70 years old and was part of a first himself: Ron Blomberg, who, playing for the New York Yankees on April 6, 1973, became the first designated hitter in Major League Baseball history.
“It’s good to be first,” Blomberg said by telephone. “I screwed up the game in 1973. But now, with Edgar Martinez making the Hall of Fame, I become a whole player now. Who ever thought the DH would last this long? That kid (Stanek) ought to go with it, enjoy it. It’s history, after all.”
Someone asked Ryne Stanek if he knew of Ron Blomberg.
“Is he with CNN?” Stanek said.
But Stanek gets the idea. Maybe that’s why he was all in when the Rays asked him to star in a marketing video this spring where he “opens” the stadium ticket office, busy, busy, busy, and posts a sign “Coffee is for openers.”
“He’s gotten attention,” Cash said with a grin. “Too much. Way too much.”
Stanek became the poster boy/lab rat for the opener. Romo might have gone first, but Stanek and his four-seam fastball that can hit triple digits were the meat of the order. He made 59 appearances in 2018, but only 30 in relief. He pitched only 66.1 innings but made 29 starts. His first-inning ERA was 2.22. Stanek became the first pitcher with at least 25 starts and 25 relief appearances in a season since household name Hugh Mulcahy did it for the Phillies in 1937. Those were the days.
“I feel like it gained me more infamy on Twitter,” Stanek said. “Just a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, this is stupid.’ ”
In the end, the New York Times labeled the 6-foot-4 Stanek as “an athlete who changed his sport,” along with a few others, including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes.
“That’s crazy company,” Stanek said.
He added, “I didn’t really have any honest idea what to think of it at first. Okay, we’re going to try this and see how it goes. By the end of the year, we’d done it 50 times and won a bunch of games that way. This is a legitimate thing.”
Stanek’s longest “start” lasted two innings but taught him a lesson. The 27-year-old began his career as a starter after being selected in the first round of the 2013 draft, but assumed his starting days were over when he moved to the bullpen in Double-A ball.
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He held starter’s dreams most of his life, to be a Verlander, a Scherzer.
“That’s what I wanted to do, be the guy,” Stanek said.
And he is, in his own way, with a simple goal:
“I know I’m not getting the W. I go in thinking the only thing I can get is the L. So, don’t get the damn L. At least it’s not weird anymore. If you have success doing whatever you do, is that really a bad thing? That’s my attitude. If you’re doing well, why does it matter?”
An Athlete Who Changed His Sport.
“It’s funny more than anything.” Stanek said. “I just roll with it.”
It’s nothing new. Stanek was born in St. Louis and grew up a Cardinals fan, so naturally he was named for Cubs Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg. Go figure.
So, opener falls right into line.
He is a video game and movie nerd. He likes all kinds of music: rap, rock, classical.
“I don’t like country,” Stanek said. “It all sounds the same. I like variety.”
He does openers at restaurants.
“I always get an appetizer. When’s the last time you had a bad appetizer?”
Favorite opening line to women he meets? “I just say, ‘Wassup?’ ”
Blomberg, whom the Yankees selected first in the 1967 draft, played eight years in the majors and was known for his goofy fun-loving ways. After retiring, he worked in baseball for years and still goes to New York for team events and fantasy camps. In 2006, he wrote a book, The Designated Hebrew. He still carries a business card that says, “First DH in major league history.” Being the first still matters.
Stanek was such a good opener last season that he might not be one quite as much this season.
“He’s going to open some games, but I hope that he’s maybe, in a way, graduated past that,” Cash said. “It would be nice to have 98 (mph) pitching with confidence in the seventh, eighth and ninth.”
Sometimes after seasons Stanek works on his grandparents’ farm. Mornings begin with feeding cows.
But there’s an opener there, too.
“Yeah there is, the rooster,” Stanek said.
Ryne Stanek nickname alert: The Rooster.
“Well, that doesn’t sound bad,” Stanek said.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.