“It was like the first day of high school,” David Price says, recalling the morning of August 2, 2014, when he entered Comerica Park for the first time as a member of the Detroit Tigers.
Up until that day, the 6-foot-6 left-hander had spent every moment of his professional career in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Signed by the Rays out of Vanderbilt as the first pick of the 2007 amateur draft, Price made his major league debut a year later, going on to establish himself as one of the premier starting pitchers in the game, even winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2012. Price’s presence in the rotation helped anchor a team that averaged 92 wins from 2010-13 and made the postseason three times.
But the Rays’ perpetual budget limitations and attendance woes tend to keep top-shelf players from spending their entire careers in Tampa, and rumors of an imminent Price trade began to swirl as early as 2012. On July 31, 2014, with the team two games under .500 and 7.5 games out of first in the AL East, the Rays finally lowered the boom, shipping Price to Detroit in a three-way deal that sent Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson to the Seattle Mariners, and Tigers hurler Drew Smyly, prospect Willy Adames and Mariners infielder Nick Franklin to Tampa. Price, who still had a year a half of “club control” remaining on his contract, had been expecting to be traded; even so, he says, it still felt traumatic to be ripped away from the only professional organization he’d ever known.
“The season was slipping away with every loss, and my teammates kind of saw it coming, as did I,” Price remembers. “And that was tough to go through. Those were guys and an organization that I’d been with for seven years; all the relationships I had with everyone who works for the Rays, the security guards and the guys who sit outside the locker room – I knew all of those guys on a first-name basis. And then it all kind of flipped upside down and backwards in one day.”
Another player of Price’s caliber might have begun this new chapter by making a swaggering spectacle of himself upon entering the Tigers’ clubhouse for the first time; after all, he was a Cy Young recipient who was well on his way to his first AL strikeout title (he finished the season with a career high of 271 Ks in 248.1 innings), and who was widely perceived as the final piece of the puzzle for what was supposed to be the Tigers’ first World Series championship since 1984. But chest-thumping and spotlight-grabbing have never exactly been Price’s style.
“No, absolutely not,” he laughs. “It’s something I always tell young guys: Listen with your eyes. Watch the way people go about their business; that’s gonna let you know what’s right, and what’s wrong.
“You don’t want to jump on the scene and be loud and step on people’s toes; you have to kind of feel your teammates out,” he continues. “And in order to do that, you just have to watch how everybody goes about their business. That’s the advice that I got when I first got to the big leagues, and I still think it’s great advice.”
In the baseball world, left-handed hurlers are often tagged as flakes, freaks or flat-out weirdos, and with good reason. Baseball history is filled with colorful lefties like Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky, who would stomp around the mound in a homicidal rage between pitches; or Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who sprinkled marijuana on his breakfast pancakes; or Hall of Famer Steve “Lefty” Carlton, who spent the years immediately following his retirement building and stocking a survivalist bunker in the mountains of Colorado.
David Price is not that kind of lefty. There is nothing remotely weird or unhinged about him, unless you count his Air Jordan addiction, or his recent obsession with the “Exo Zombies” mode of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. A sizeable portion of his Instagram and Twitter posts involve Astro, his adorable French bulldog sidekick, and when he tweets about breakfast food, there’s nary a mention of Spaceman-style toppings. Price also claims to be completely superstition-free – which, viewed in the context of a sport rife with superstitious players, may be the only thing about him that’s truly odd.
“I definitely have my routine that I do every single day, but I wouldn’t call it superstition,” he laughs. “I’ve got too much energy on my game day, and I need to expend some of it. [So] I like to get there four hours before the game and sit in the hot tub for 30 minutes; then I’ll be in the weight room and get on the treadmill for 24 minutes, get my light workout. I’ll get on the training table and get some soft-tissue massage done, just to loosen my arm up, and then I’ll head out to the bullpen and get my headphones on so I can get in my zone.”
Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne and Big Sean are usually a big part of Price’s pregame playlist, and as he listens, he visualizes what he wants to do throughout the course of the game. “I’ll go through the entire lineup, and visualize myself making my pitches and getting good results. The amount of time I use before the game is what catches people off-guard sometimes, but I’m just trying to make sure that I put myself in the best position to be successful. And it seems to work.”
Whether he’s prepping for a game, meticulously choosing home furnishings (he bought a new house in Nashville during the offseason), running his Project One Four charity (which supports various youth educational programs and organizations in Tennessee and Tampa), or talking to the press, Price seems to approach everything with a maximum of methodical thought and a minimum of ego, a combination that’s rather rare in professional sports.
“I feel like my parents did a tremendous job in raising me,” Price says. “They always taught me the right way to go about my business, and the right way to treat people. It could be professional sports, or any job you have – if you treat people with respect, and treat them the way you want to be treated, things are going to work out for you in the long run.
“And then Coach Corbin, when I was at Vanderbilt, really set the mold for the person that I turned into today,” he continues. “I couldn’t have asked for three better people in my life.”
Tom Corbin once famously talked Price off the ledge during one of the hurler’s rare less-than-levelheaded moments. After getting shelled during an intra-squad game his freshman year, a deeply frustrated Price told his coach that he intended to quit baseball, drop out of school and seek employment at a McDonald’s in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Corbin, happily for all concerned, managed to convince Price that he still had a bright future ahead of him as a pitcher.
Price demonstrated a much cooler head on August 27, 2014, when he endured the worst inning of his career, giving up nine straight hits (which eventually led to eight earned runs) to the Yankees in the third inning of a contest at Comerica. “Things don’t always go your way,” he tweeted after that game. “That’s baseball and most importantly that’s life. I’ll be fine…learn from every experience and get better.”
Price’s record with Detroit – 4-4 in 11 starts, with a 3.59 ERA in 77 2/3 innings – might not seem particularly impressive in itself, but his Tigers ERA would have been only 2.75 without the meltdown against the Yankees. And though some Tigers fans groused about the loss of Smyly (who posted a 1.70 ERA in seven starts for the Rays after leaving Detroit), Price’s advanced stats in August and September were comparable to the numbers he’d put up earlier in the season with Tampa.
He also came up big for the Tigers on the final day of the season, when he struck out eight Twins and allowed only four hits in 7 1/3 scoreless innings, earning his 15th victory and clinching Detroit’s fourth consecutive AL Central flag. The bottom fell out of the Tigers’ World Series plans in the ALDS, when they were swept by the Orioles. But Price’s performance in Game Three (when he fanned six batters in eight innings, and kept his team in the game despite giving up a two-run shot to Nelson Cruz in the sixth) was one of the few Detroit highlights of the series, and far more impressive than the outings of teammates fellow Cy Young winners Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
This January, when Scherzer signed a free-agent deal with the Nationals, it became clear that Price – who’d inked a one-year, $19.75 million deal (the biggest ever offered to a player who’d filed for arbitration) with the Tigers just a few days earlier – had been picked up not just as a puzzle piece for the 2014 postseason, but an insurance policy for the post-Scherzer Tigers of 2015.
While most teams would still happily hock their Jumbotrons in exchange for three starting pitchers like Price, Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, Verlander’s shaky 2014 and Sanchez’s injury history make Price the only “sure thing” in the Tigers’ current rotation. The fact that Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus recently tapped Price to start Opening Day in Detroit – the first time since 2007 that Verlander won’t be starting a Tigers opener – speaks volumes about the level of confidence that the team has in him, as well as the size of the burden that they expect him to shoulder.
But, in addition to filling Scherzer’s spot atop the Tigers’ rotation, Price will be facing the same challenge that Scherzer did in 2014: Maintaining his focus on the tasks at hand, even while the prospect of a major free-agency payday dances distractingly in the distance. Scherzer dealt with it by refusing to negotiate with the team during the season or discuss his contract situation with the press, but Price seems open to both things.
“I felt like I did a pretty good job staying focused last year, even with all the questions about the possibility of being traded before the deadline,” he says. “I was completely honest with all the reporters about everything they asked me, and it’s the same this year. But my contract situation is not something I wake up thinking about, and it’s not something I think about before I go to bed. I guess it’s just something that I think about whenever I’m asked about it by reporters.”
He laughs, adding that he feels completely at home with the Tigers these days. Price has developed a close friendship with Verlander, bonding over their shared love of golf and their mutual willingness to don goofy costumes, and he clearly appreciates the lengths that the tight-knit organization has gone to make him feel like part of the family, even asking Astro to pose for a promotional poster that will be given away to kids at Comerica. It’s a much different experience from that “first day of high school” last August.
“For me, to have a change of scenery like that in the middle of the season, at first it was tough,” he says. “But everybody was welcoming and open to showing me the way things worked. Joba [Chamberlain] was a big one; Verlander was big. But the players and the staff really made the transition go as smoothly as possible. It could have been a lot tougher without those guys being as helpful as they were.”
Does this mean that Price will stick with Detroit for 2016 and beyond? Tigers fans certainly hope so, but Price – methodical as ever – says he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.
“I don’t live in the past, and I don’t live in the future. I like to try and live in the present,” he says. “If I can do that, and have no distractions, I know that I can be ready every fifth day, and try and help the Tigers win. I’m not concerned with where I’ll be, or who I’m playing for in 2016; my focus is on the Detroit Tigers, and helping this organization get to where we want to go.”