Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Rays pair part of club's rapid rise

The two men playing catch in the outfield didn't have a ton in common. One was a 22-year-old black guy from Tennessee; the other a 31-year-old white guy from Giles County.

One had a golden left arm that rocketed him through Vanderbilt and made him the top pick in the 2007 baseball draft; the other had a "pretty modest career" at Giles High and Bluefield College.

But for two weeks this past April, David Price and Mark Vinson were together every other day, tossing beneath the St. Petersburg sun at the Tampa Bay Rays spring training complex. Each time, they'd stretch it out a little farther, test the forearm a little more. Vinson's task: Get the injured Price healthy and ready for his first full season as a professional.

You might say that's worked out pretty well.

Price, the hero of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, made another memory on Thursday night. He pitched the final 2 13 innings against the Phillies as the Rays evened the World Series at a game apiece, adding another chapter to one of the greatest baseball stories ever told.

And Vinson? He was up in the stands in his employee seats at Tropicana Field, still trying to understand how this all has happened.

"I think anybody who says we expected this year would be stretching the truth," said Vinson, a 1994 Giles graduate who serves as the minor league rehabilitation and athletic training coordinator for the worst-to-first Rays. "I certainly had a sense that this organization was on the right track. But realistically, this season was a pretty big surprise."

So is Vinson's career path. Growing up in Pearisburg, he loved baseball but never had any goals of getting into the sport professionally. But after getting a job as a trainer with the Pulaski Rangers in 2001, his upward mobility has been almost as impressive as Price's.

After two years with Pulaski, he has moved up a baseball rung every year starting in 2003.

Vinson left the Rangers organization on good terms in 2005. His wife, Mary, was going to medical school in Blacksburg, and the distance between her and his job in Surprise, Ariz., became too much to bear. He decided to take a position as a trainer with Bluefield College.

He liked that job, "but really, my heart was back in baseball," he said.

The Rangers helped him land a job with Tampa Bay's Double-A team in Montgomery, Ala. In 2007, Vinson earned a promotion to Triple-A Durham. And this January, he was promoted again -- to overseer of all of the Rays' minor-league trainers.

"A lot of times, that's really just being at the right place at the right time," Vinson said of the rapid ascension. "I've kind of been lucky in a sense."

Now he feels luckier than ever. There, on baseball's biggest stage, are young stars he's worked with throughout his time with the Rays. Third baseman Evan Longoria, a strong contender for AL rookie of the year, was with Vinson in Montgomery and Durham. Outfielder Rocco Baldelli has had a series of health issues that the training staff has helped him overcome.

And then there's Price, the rookie sensation who struck out Boston's J.D. Drew with a 97-mph fastball en route to earning a save in Game 7 of the ALCS.

Watching that one from the stands last Sunday, Vinson had a hard time maintaining the line between employee and fan.

"There's obviously a certain sense of pride you take in what these players are doing," Vinson said.

Price strained a muscle in his forearm during spring training. So instead of going straight to a minor league club in April, he stayed back at the spring training complex.

That's where Vinson is based. Much of his job is administrative -- he analyzes daily reports from trainers at each of Tampa Bay's six minor-league outposts, works closely with the front office staff and visits each farm team at least once a year. But Price's situation offered a chance for some one-on-one rehab.

Working in conjunction with the pitching coaches, Vinson designed a regimen for Price. They took it slow -- you don't rush a valuable arm like that -- and Vinson's background as a player allowed him to be Price's regular throwing partner, a role he takes advantage of whenever he can.

"My arm's in pretty good shape now, actually," Vinson said with a laugh.

After a little more than a month together, Price was healthy enough to move on to Class A Vero Beach and officially begin his career.

"That's made his rise even more amazing," Vinson said. "A lot of people don't realize he missed a month of the season."

Tonight, Vinson is scheduled to be in Philadelphia for Game 3. He doesn't go in the clubhouse -- "I don't want to disrupt the vibe," he says -- but he has more in common with Price than it might have seemed back in April.

They're both further along in their careers than they'd thought they be. They're both part of one of the most amazing stories in sports history.

In short, they're both living a dream.

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