ST. PETERSBURG — The perfect ballplayer could be out of work soon. Or, at least, on his way to a smaller paycheck in a lesser league.
And he seems OK with the thought. More than 15 years after his pro career began, more than 10 years after his major-league debut, he makes no demands, creates no waves, seeks no special considerations.
The odds say he is not likely to find a place on the Rays’ 40-man roster at the end of spring training, but he has a locker, a uniform and a chance. And, for now, that’s enough.
Which is why Charlie Culberson is the perfect ballplayer.
He is our romantic version of what a big-league veteran should be. A guy without a guaranteed contract but wearing a million-dollar smile. A guy who is genuinely grateful for the opportunity to prove himself all over again with every new calendar and every new organization.
For players such as Culberson, this game may offer everything, but it promises nothing.
“It would be nice to have a guaranteed deal and a spot on the roster. It’d be nice to know you’re going to be on the team when the season begins, but not all of us have that luxury,” Culberson said. “And I’ve just kind of accepted that fact. If that’s the case, and it has been for most of my career, I understand the situation. I’ve got a wife and kids at home that enjoy watching dad play and traveling, and that’s extra motivation for me to continue playing baseball.
“If I have an opportunity, and I do right now with this locker and jersey, that’s kind of all I need.”
The roster numbers do not add up for him in Rays camp, but it’s been that way for quite some time. And, somehow, he usually finds a job by opening day.
Culberson, 33, has been a non-roster invitee to spring training six of the last eight seasons. And yet he began the year in the majors on multiple occasions with the Dodgers. And with the Braves. And with the Rangers. He’s spent a lot of time in a major-league uniform since 2014 but rarely shows up in the lineup. Between Triple-A and the majors, he’s only averaged about 250 plate appearances a year for the past decade but has hit .316 over parts of four postseasons.
That says two things about Culberson that are undoubtedly true:
1. His greatest value is as an insurance policy. You can plug him in almost anywhere on the field, and he’s going to do a professional job. Culberson has gotten starts in leftfield, shortstop, second base, third base, first base and rightfield in his big-league career.
2. Managers love having him around. It’s not just his versatility but his demeanor. He’s not going to complain about playing time, and he’ll invariably be one of the most popular guys in the clubhouse.
“His character is off the charts. We’ve heard that from people in Atlanta, from people in Texas, everywhere he’s been,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “The other day, I took him out of the game, trying to show some courtesy to the veteran guy. You know, come in, get your at-bat, get your hit, get out of the game. And I look at him two innings later, he’s still sitting in the dugout. I said, ‘That was for you to leave early so you could avoid traffic.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m not leaving.’
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“He wants to interact, he wants to be around. He’s seen a lot, been through a lot, been on good teams. The more that he can connect with our players, I think it’s going to be a benefit.”
The issue is finding a role for him in Tampa Bay. The Rays are set with Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe at shortstop and second base, and they have Taylor Walls and Vidal Brujan waiting in the wings. They also have Daniel Robertson in camp as a non-roster invitee.
Maybe Walls’ oblique injury will open a door for Culberson. Maybe the Rays want Brujan to get more consistent at-bats at Triple-A. Maybe there’s a path for Culberson to stick around come March 30. Maybe some other team has an injury/opening in the infield and Culberson exercises one of several “out” clauses in his deal with Tampa Bay.
Or maybe Culberson ends up at Durham, where Michael Johns is in his first season as a Triple-A manager and Culberson’s presence could be an asset for a young clubhouse.
“I don’t think my baseball card is as cool as some other guys, but I do have one,” Culberson said. “My career is my career. I just try to bring a professional player to the table and be available for anything. Being available is the best thing I can bring to a team. So I try to have a good attitude, I try to give 100-percent effort, and whatever happens is going to happen. If it happens in my favor, then great. If it doesn’t, then I’ll know I did what I could.”
That sounds … perfect.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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