Photo courtesy of Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox
It was the middle of David Price’s freshman year at Vanderbilt when Tim Corbin’s phone rang. Bonnie Price, the pitcher’s father, was on the line.
“David wants to see you,’’ Price told the baseball coach.
“David was struggling academically,’’ Corbin said. “And his outing the day before had been really, really rough. He came into the locker room, his eyes were swollen. You could tell he’d been up that night, crying.
“He said, ‘Coach, I can’t do it anymore. I want to leave.’ I asked why. He said, ‘I’m not good enough to pitch here, and I can’t do it academically.’
“I asked him what he was going to do. He said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe work, maybe go to a junior college.’’’
For the next hour, Corbin talked with his gifted manchild. He let the emotions spill out, then calmly deconstructed Price’s reasons for wanting to quit. He was smart, he assured the pitcher. He could handle the classwork. And there was no doubt in Corbin’s mind that he would succeed as a pitcher.
“Within an hour,’’ Corbin said, “he got up and gave me a hug. That was the last time I ever had talk to him about confidence again. It was a breaking point for the kid, but once he sat down and examined what he was going through, he said, ‘I’m fine.’
“He went from being our 12th pitcher to No. 2 by the end of of his freshman year, then was great his sophomore year. I coached him on Team USA the next summer, and as a junior he was the No. 1 player in the country from the start of that year to the finish, which is very difficult to do.’’
Tim Corbin grew up a Red Sox fan in Wolfeboro, N.H., the lovely resort town on Lake Winnipesaukee. That insecure freshman he counselled 11 years ago is now the new ace of the Red Sox pitching staff, a Cy Young Award winner in 2012 who has finished second for the award in two other seasons, including last year. Corbin is convinced the pitcher and the fan base are made for each other.
“I think he will really enjoy it,’’ he said. “I think it’s a match. I know there are a lot of things that have to happen along the way, but the care levels are a perfect match. The care level of Boston sports and the care level of the individual attaching himself to Boston sports is the same. There’s no doubt.
“There’s a passion to the game that exists with this young man that’s different. He celebrates it all the time. Even when he’s not playing it, he’s still celebrating it, because he’s thinking about it, and he’s still preparing for it. And that in itself is the match. He’s got an innocence about him that has never left him, and every time I see him, I go, ‘Never lose that innocence.’’’
The back of his baseball card serves as mute tribute to the kind of pitcher David Taylor Price is. He is a five-time All-Star who in the course of eight big-league seasons has a record of 104-56, his .650 winning percentage second only to Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers (.671) among active pitchers with at least 125 decisions. His career earned run average of 3.09 is the best by an American League pitcher since the start of the 2000 season, and he has struck out at least 200 batters in four of the last five seasons, including a career-high 271 in 2014.
Price has done some of his best pitching at Fenway Park. In 11 career regular-season starts in the Fens, Price is 6-1 with a 1.95 ERA, holding Sox batters to a .186 average.
His bona fides as a pitcher are unquestioned. But set the baseball card aside, and allow those who have known David Price—as a coach, a boss, a teammate, a friend—tell you about the man.
Chris Archer is now the ace of the Tampa Bay Rays’ staff, but when he first got to know Price, he was a 23-year-old Double-A pitcher, newly acquired from the Chicago Cubs.
“Usually when people ask me about him, it’s never the baseball that first comes to my mind or anybody else’s mind,’’ Archer said in Port Charlotte this spring. “It’s the type of person he is.
“When I first got traded over, we had had very minor interactions before. But he reached out and texted me. He said, ‘You’re my lockermate. I want to look out for you. If you need anything, here’s my number. Don’t be shy or bashful about reaching out.’’’
“His locker is right here,’’ he said, gesturing to the one next to his, “and I’m still in the same locker. For an All-Star pitcher to reach out to a guy who was a Double-A pitcher, it meant a lot. It was life-changing. It made me realize how important it is for me now to shoot my number to these guys over here, to open a line of communication.
They have not been on the same team since the 2014 trading deadline, when Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, then in Detroit, acquired Price from the Rays, but that has not hindered their friendship.
“On the day I pitch he texts me the same message every single time, the same message he told me the 50 or so starts I made when he was here,’’ Archer said. “To take the time to reach out somebody from three teams ago? And it’s not just me. It’s [Alex] Cobb, it’s [Matt] Moore.
“Everybody feels like they’re David Price’s best friend. You feel like you can go to him about anything because of how genuine he is. That 30 seconds in passing, whenever you see him, whether it’s the parking lot attendant or one of the clubhouse staff, a member of the grounds crew and obviously a teammate, everybody feels like David Price’s best friend because he is so open and genuine and sincere in that moment.’’
Jim Hickey is entering his ninth season as Tampa Bay’s pitching coach. He was at Tropicana Field when Price, drafted No. 1 overall by the Rays in 2007, worked out for the Rays the first time. The potential to be not only a great pitcher but an impactful teammate were evident from the beginning, Hickey said.
“I absolutely saw those qualities in him,’’ Hickey said, “but you have to evolve into that. You can’t just come in and make an impact if you don’t have the resume. He was a ‘1-1’ pick, and it was easy to see why. He obviously has all the physical attributes, he was left-handed, and it was obvious very quickly that he was raised right. His mother (Debbie) and father did a tremendous job. He was respectful, courteous, well-spoken, a really pleasant young man. If he wasn’t a major-league pitcher, and you just met him wherever, he’d be somebody you’d enjoy being around.’’
Whenever a Rays pitcher threw a bullpen or pitched in a “B” game on a minor-league field, Price made it a point to make sure all of the starting pitchers were present. That practice may not have begun with him, Hickey said, but he embraced it and made it his own.
“The genuine concern he had for his teammates, the genuine want for them to do well, that’s not always the case when 10 or 12 or 15 alpha males are in the same room. David never ever has done anything but root 100 percent for the other pitchers to be the best they can be.’’
Like Vanderbilt’s Corbin, Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello has New England roots, having grown up in Milford, Mass., and starring at Assumption College in Worcester. He spent just 2 ½ months with Price, after Dombrowski—knowing that the Tigers were unlikely to make the playoffs or retain the left-hander as a free agent after the season—traded the pitcher to Toronto. But that was sufficient time to create a lasting bond, although it’s purely a coincidence, Colabello insisted, that he is now the proud owner of a French bulldog (Clutch), a future “BFF” of Price’s Frenchie, Astro.
“He’s everything you hope for in a guy to help create the right culture in the clubhouse,’’ Colabello said in Dunedin. “He’s one of those kind of guys, I’d be comfortable paying him whatever because his value is so much more than just the numbers he puts up on the board every night, and obviously those are pretty good in themselves.
“There’s no player more accountable or that scrutinizes himself more than David Price. There may be some players who are the same, but there is no player more vested in what he’s doing. He’s trying to do something bigger than just him. Whatever comes from the outside, I don’t think it really matters because no one is going to hold him to a higher standard than he does for himself.’’
Colabello referred to the sign Price hung in his locker: “If you don’t like it, pitch better.’’
“He feels like he owes it to the organization, to the team, the guys around him, to the city, to the environment he’s playing in,’’ Colabello said. “I understand Boston, New York are big markets and you’re held accountable, but I don’t think it’s going to change who he is because nobody holds themselves more accountable than he does.
“He has an uncanny ability to be himself in the most true honest way. I can say that he is literally the most unselfish guy I’ve ever met.’’
Colabello leaves a visitor with this story. Last season, Price wanted to buy himself a scooter. He wound up buying everyone on the club one. He did the same with bathrobes.
“He puts his teammates in the forefront of every decision he makes,’’ Colabello said.
Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman, who made a remarkable recovery from knee surgery last spring to join the Jays for their playoff push last season, looks forward to facing a man he calls a mentor and one of his best friends.
“I think he’s a rare individual,’’ he said. “Obviously he’s one of the best pitchers in the game. That takes care of itself.
“But it’s what he does off the field, the way he lives his life and puts everyone before him, that leaves an unbelievable impression on everyone who meets him.
“He’s the first one to come and the last one to leave, and treats everybody the same. He’s the most humble individual I’ve ever been around.’’
Price once told him, Stroman said, that he will not be remembered for how he threw a 3-and-2 cutter but how he treats people.
“I just hope to have half as good a career as him, and go about my business the way he does,’’ Stroman said. “He’s left an unbelievable amount of knowledge to me. I picked his brain every day and I do to this day. We text all the time and he Facetimed me the other day.
“He’s one of the biggest role models and mentors I have.’’
And now David Price is in Boston, at 30 years old in the prime of his career. “He’s the total package,’’ Dombrowski says. “Talent, makeup, personality, intelligence.’’
The expectations are high, to be sure. The rewards, however, may be even greater. Price craves a World Series ring. But the returns he delivers are likely to transcend what he does on the mound every five days when he’s given the ball.
“If you took him away from baseball, you’re taking away something that makes him smile, that makes him cry, that makes him care,’’ Corbin says. “That’s what he is. He’s about baseball, but he’s about people. He loves the people he’s with every single day.’’