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‘Intense Pete’ puts on quite a show for Rays

It’s all fun and games until reliever Pete Fairbanks starts warming up. Then, a switch flips that changes everything.
Rays relief pitcher Pete Fairbanks reacts after striking out Rafael Devers to end a 4-3 win over the Red Sox earlier this month at Tropicana Field.
Rays relief pitcher Pete Fairbanks reacts after striking out Rafael Devers to end a 4-3 win over the Red Sox earlier this month at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 23|Updated Sep. 24

ST. PETERSBURG — For most of the day and into the early evening, Pete Fairbanks is a relatively normal guy.

He helps his wife, Lydia, and dotes on their two young kids, Isak (nearly 3) and Lotte (5 months), in the mornings. He heads to work in the early afternoon, sharing his knowledge, wit and sarcasm around the Rays clubhouse, then on the field for throwing sessions and batting-practice shagging. Shortly before first pitch, Fairbanks and the other relievers head to the bullpen, usually continuing the banter through the first few innings.

“Pete is very laid-back, having fun, talking with the guys, BS-ing with whatever the topic of the day might be,” bullpen coach Stan Boroski said. “He’s a ringleader down there. Everybody loves him. He’s having a good time.”

Until the bullpen phone rings and Fairbanks hears his name.

Boroski makes a point of repeating back manager Kevin Cash’s orders for veracity. As soon as he says Fairbanks is headed into the game, the response is somewhat Pavlovian.

“When it’s time to get ready,” Boroski said, “the switch flips and he is ‘Intense Pete.’”

That’s one, polite, way to put it.

Teammates and coaches rave, marvel and wonder — in some colorful terms — at how explosive, emotional and intense the 6-foot-6 Fairbanks is on the mound.

Also, how effective he has been, entering play Saturday on a 20-game scoreless streak, eight-for-eight in save opportunities with a 1.23 ERA through 22 games, allowing three runs and 12 hits over 22 innings while striking out 34.

‘Controlled violence’

Rays catcher Christian Bethancourt (14) and relief pitcher Pete Fairbanks (29) celebrate a game-ending strikeout during a victory over the Red Sox earlier this month at Tropicana Field.
Rays catcher Christian Bethancourt (14) and relief pitcher Pete Fairbanks (29) celebrate a game-ending strikeout during a victory over the Red Sox earlier this month at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“I’m trying to think of the right way to put this,” always-thoughtful pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “It’s just that he has some controlled violence to his entire makeup. It’s what it is. He’s 100-percent fearless, and as he should be. He’s a big, intimidating presence on the mound.

“He’s using two pitches as well as anybody as there is in the game right now. He’s attacking early in the count. He’s doing what he needs to do once he gets to two strikes. I really don’t know how to frame just the mentality, but it is as intense as any athlete I’ve been around.”

Pitcher Jeffrey Springs has seen it since 2015, when he and Fairbanks were drafted by Texas, started their careers at Class A Spokane and crossed paths repeatedly until Fairbanks — who had two Tommy John elbow surgeries by then — was traded to the Rays in July 2019.

“It was the same thing — fiery, wants to win, wants to win at all costs,” Springs said. “He wants to beat you at everything he does, whether it’s playing cards or whatever. But that’s what makes him great at what he does.”

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The relievers enjoy watching the transformation.

“He’s focused, and he just gets intense,” Jalen Beeks said. “The eyes pop out, and he’s ready to go. And it really works.”

The eyes are a big part of it, enough to have earned a place on the internet (search “Fairbanks crazy eyes” on Google), plus a T-shirt featuring a close-up.

‘Just get out of the way’

If Springs didn’t know better, how would he describe Fairbanks? “Just get out of the way. Hopefully, he doesn’t make eye contact with you. That kind of look, it’s like, ‘Oh crap. Don’t look at it.’”

Nor, manager Kevin Cash said, should one try to figure out what’s going through Fairbanks’ mind when he is on the mound. “I wouldn’t even try to go there,” Cash said.

Plus, Cash has to be concerned about the post-game high-fives, which Fairbanks delivers with nearly the same force as his 99 mph-plus four-seam fastball. “Since my (October) arm surgery, it really doesn’t feel good,” Cash said. “So I’ve asked him to stop doing that. Most times, he’ll listen.”

Actually, Fairbanks, 28, says this is a somewhat toned-down version of himself, that he has learned over the years to control and better channel his intensity. “The fire has never been something I’ve had to bring out — it’s always kind of been there,” he said. “It’s always been the reining it in vs. the getting it out.”

It goes back as far as he can remember and has broad reaches, still emerging now for board games — Scrabble, Monopoly, Catan, etc. — with Lydia.

“Pete as a child was like that,” Fairbanks said, referring to himself in the third person. “Sports. School. Well, kind of school — when I had to. When I’m out there, I’m intense. When I’m not out there, you can probably hear me laugh from halfway across the Trop. I try not to take myself too seriously.”

Finding that balance, Fairbanks said, was key.

“I’ve always been, not necessarily two different people, but that mentality is not something you can live with and exist in outside being yourself as a father or a husband, etc.,” he said. “Those don’t exactly mesh that well, because you would probably end up in a lot of altercations.”

Separating thoughts also has made him a better pitcher, especially this season after he joined the team in mid-July following recovery from a spring lat injury.

A mundane, singular focus

Pete Fairbanks pitches during a game against the Yankees earlier this month at Tropicana Field.
Pete Fairbanks pitches during a game against the Yankees earlier this month at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“The emotion part of it, I am kind of who I am out there. But what’s going through my mind is nothing along those lines,” Fairbanks said. “Right now it’s singular, and it’s attacking the strike zone. So that sounds mundane, but that is singular and that is my focus.”

As well as Fairbanks has been pitching, most everyone around the Rays enjoys the show — the bulging eyes, expressions, gestures, occasional bad words (including during a recent postgame TV interview).

“That Pete,” Boroski said, “is intensely driven on the job at hand. ‘Give me the ball. I know what I have to go out and do. And this is what I’m focused on doing.’ He’s really good at it. And he doesn’t want to let his teammates down.

“I believe that’s one of the driving factors behind how he does what he does, and why he does what he does. He knows when he’s out there the game is on the line, it’s high-leverage. He understands that. He accepts it. He’s good at it. He loves it. He thrives at it. And we love him for it.”

Occasionally, Fairbanks does hear about his behavior on the mound being an issue.

“Only my grandmother,” he said. “She complains to my mother about it. It’s more about lip-reading.”

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