Righthander Jamey Wright sure isn’t where he expected to be at this point in his career. Then again, maybe he is. The 38-year-old Oklahoman is battling for a spot in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen, making this the eighth straight year he has started the year without a big-league job, as a non-roster invitee to spring training.
Younger readers might be surprised to learn Wright’s life was once more stable. The Colorado Rockies drafted him in the first round (28th overall) in 1993, and Wright debuted as a workhorse starter for the club in 1996. For the next decade, he got steady work as a starter. But his last start was in 2007, two years into his unenviable streak of job insecurity. And since moving to the bullpen, he just can’t get that big-league deal he wants, even after posting a sub-4.00 ERA in 60 or more appearances in each of the past two seasons.
Wright says pitching for his life every spring isn’t ideal, but at least he can laugh about it.
During spring training, most players seem more carefree than they do during the season. I take it you’re different.
Spring training is pretty tense for me. I’m a different person in spring training. I’m still kind of happy-go-lucky and cheer for everyone. I believe in karma and want everyone to do as well as they can. The best man gets the job. But it’s serious business. I can’t be in the big leagues unless I make the team in the first place.
Have you ever felt like throwing in the towel?
No way. It’s playing baseball. It’s what I love to do. I’d love to have a three-year deal so I know where I’m going to be from one year to the next and not have to come in and be perfect through spring training. But it’s still pitching. It’s still going out there and getting outs. I still want to be out there. If it means having to come in ready to go from day one of spring training, that’s what I have to do.
I just figured over the last two or three years I might sneak in a big-league deal. But I’ve made the team seven times. I’ve been in the big leagues the whole time. I have a joke that I want to be the first guy to pitch 20 years with 10 minor-league deals. If I get a big-league deal, that would screw it up.
I’m glad you have a sense of humor about it.
I’m pretty dry, humor-wise. I like to have fun. Being on as many teams as I have [11, including two tours each with the Kansas City Royals and Colorado Rockies], no one has as many friends as I do. Being able to joke around and share as many stories as I have is a lot of fun.
So how much swag from your former teams do you keep?
I have bags and bags of stuff. We have a storage unit in Oklahoma City, and the lady there told me most people have units for two or three months. We’ve had ours for six years. I still have old Rockies bags, T-shirts and other stuff.
How do you like pitching out of the bullpen versus starting?
I loved relieving the first year I did it for the simple fact that every day you come to the ballpark, there’s a chance you’re going to get in the game and contribute. [But] there’s no greater gig in baseball than being a starting pitcher. I remember some of the other games I wasn’t pitching in, I’d go hang out in the clubhouse. You’re watching, but in the bullpen you’re literally watching every single pitch, seeing what the hitters or doing and what we’re doing to get them out. After my first full season in the bullpen, I came home mentally and physically exhausted like I’d never been before.
Are you comfortable in that role now, or do you still wish you were starting?
It seems that every year I’ve improved my ERA or strikeouts as a reliever. I’ve learned my niche and how to prepare and execute when I get in there. It’s tough out of the bullpen, because if something goes wrong and you give up four runs, it’ll take you about a month to get your ERA down. But I’m comfortable with what I’m doing and comfortable filling different roles they ask me to do. It doesn’t matter what inning it is. I want to be out there.
The Rays have a knack for reaching the postseason, which is something you haven’t done yet. How much does that mean to you?
It means everything to me. It’s why I continue to play. I want a chance to pitch in the playoffs and hopefully get to the World Series. It’s not just the big guys who dream of playing in a World Series. I’ve dreamed about that since I was a little boy, too.