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There are many reasons why the Boston Red Sox are thrilled that David Price, their $217 million left-hander, is sound of elbow again, bouncing back from the most frustrating summer of his baseball life. They range from his solid results (2-3, 3.78 ERA) to his renewed dependability every fifth day.
The most telltale sign of all, though, is the one that disappeared into the shadows with him last summer.
“When David Price is smiling,” Boston pitching coach Dana LeVangie says, “it vibrates.”
Indeed, Price is right again. He feels good, as if the natural order of the universe has been restored. After making a career-low 11 starts last season following a spring training scare that sent him to elbow specialists and edged him uncomfortably within range of the words “Tommy John surgery,” there are no more concerns.
He exhaled big when he passed the 70-pitch mark this spring and suffered no setbacks. He did so again in dominating during Boston’s home opener April 5, a 40-degree afternoon on which he threw 91 pitches and seven shutout innings. Making the chill bearable, he noted, was the fact that as he worked, the sun shone.
Last summer, he was never able to fight through the clouds.
He thought hard about that in mid-April as the Sox flew to Southern California, where he was scheduled for a much-hyped start against the Los Angeles Angels‘ Shohei Ohtani. It was in Anaheim last July 22 that he made what was his final start of 2017. He was knocked from the rotation for good when his elbow ached following his 102-pitch effort, landing him on the disabled list for a second time until rosters expanded in September. In the middle of that month, he did the only thing his elbow allowed. For the first time since his rookie season in 2008, Price regularly worked out of the bullpen.
OK, he thought as the charter flight approached Anaheim, my last start of the year was here, so this’ll be cool. And as Betts blasted three home runs in the game, Price turned in five pretty good innings to notch his second win of the season.
Another box checked.
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Off the field, Price is a consummate giver of gifts. This spring, he ordered 10 mobile controllers so when his fellow pitchers played the all-consuming game Fortnite Battle Royale on their smartphones, they could do so in style.
Once, Rick Porcello admired Price’s Nike golfing irons and, even though the company no longer was making them, Price hooked him up with a set anyway. He’s given right fielder Mookie Betts a pair of premium headphones and, upon being traded to the team in 2015, gifted all the Toronto Blue Jays with monogrammed bathrobes.
Mention an item you desire when Price is nearby, and chances are it won’t be long before he’s scouring Amazon, loading his shopping cart and clicking “Purchase.”
“Things you wouldn’t even think about,” Betts says. “Little things. You don’t even have to ask.”
Porcello and Price played together in Detroit in 2014 and were reunited in Boston in 2016. The right-hander calls his lefty friend one of the best teammates he’s ever had. A fierce competitor on the mound, Price is known for his kindness and generosity in the clubhouse. That combination, Porcello says, is “pretty hard to beat.”
Always, sports has been the one constant that makes Price feel the joy he felt as a little kid back home in Tennessee. His years at Vanderbilt playing for legendary coach Tim Corbin were in so many ways a bridge from those carefree days of childhood to the pressurized world of a professional. While Price majored in sociology in the classroom, Corbin taught him about human relations in his classroom.
“Obviously, I didn’t buy gifts for my teammates then. I didn’t have any money,” Price says. “But in college as a pitcher, you get to play once a week, and you watch six days a week, and you kind of go stir-crazy if you’re just worried about what you’re doing, what you’re going through, what’s on your plate. … Live through your teammates, and enjoy their moments of happiness, and it makes you happy.”
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Joy was elusive to Price last year, no matter where or how hard he looked. It started draining from his life in spring training when he felt something after he threw a live batting practice session. It was different from anything he had ever felt in his elbow, and he feared it was catastrophic. “I thought it was blown,” he says.
Through 1,671.2 innings crossing nine years, eight playoff series and one World Series, across five All-Star Games and one American League Cy Young Award, one thing Price never had was a significant injury. Only once had he ever been on the disabled list, for nearly seven weeks in 2013 with a right triceps strain. Beginning with his July 2 return that year, however, he led the majors the rest of the season with 131.2 innings.
Now, fearing the worst, he returned home to the spring condo he shared with Sox reliever Joe Kelly and, as they watched television, they played amateur physician. Look at this, Price told Kelly, referring to a spot on the inside of his left elbow that was as big as a golf ball and felt as hard as wood.
Move your arm like this, Kelly said. Does that hurt? Move it this way. Does that hurt?
“I’ve never seen an elbow like that,” Kelly says. “It was just a big old huge knot all over.”
Kelly was scared.
“Yeah,” he says. “He’s our frickin’ guy.”
Says Price: “The only thing that was going through my mind was that I was going to have to have Tommy John surgery and my wife was going to give birth to our son in a couple of months and I wouldn’t be able to hold him.”
The Red Sox dispatched Price to Indianapolis, where elbow specialists Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Neal ElAttrache were at the NFL combine. Andrews, whom Price had seen every spring training when he was with Tampa Bay—2007-14—was familiar with Price’s arm and ran him through a gauntlet of tests.
Andrews and ElAttrache sat down together with Price. The two doctors were in agreement: If this was a 21- or 22-year-old kid, they’d recommend Tommy John surgery. But Price’s elbow was different. The way the ulnar collateral ligament lays flat on the bone, the way his elbow is structured…take some time off, they said. Rest. And when you feel like you can pick up a baseball again, go ahead and play catch and see how it feels.
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But the trouble with in-season rest is that the schedule never stops. By late May, Price and the Sox thought he was good to go. He made six starts in June. Another four in July. The elbow allowed no more.
Along the way, other things began to go terribly wrong. The kindness Porcello spoke of sometimes went missing as Price battled to stay on the field. He stopped talking with the Boston media. He lashed out at one Red Sox reporter in a nasty scene in New York. Sullenness replaced his smile.
Price even badly erred while attempting to defend fellow pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez. After Sox television analyst and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley—known at times to be more critical of the team than other broadcasters—uttered the word “Yuck” on a broadcast while a graphic of Rodriguez’s stats in a rehab start was shown, Price verbally confronted Eckersley about that on a team charter flight from Boston to Toronto, causing an uncomfortable and embarrassing scene.
“I definitely handled that situation the wrong way,” Price says. “I know that. I’ve learned from it. So be it. If that’s what you’ve got bad to say about me, that I went through a verbal altercation with somebody, so be it. I’ve lived my 32 years pretty well if that’s what you’ve got to say about me.
“I’ve moved on. I hope everybody else has as well. I’ve got no problems.”
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It is a quantum leap from Tampa Bay to Boston, even if one detours through Detroit and Toronto. At times, the Fenway Park walls even closed in on Ted Williams and David Ortiz. From his healthy vantage point early in 2018, Price thinks he is better positioned now to handle the city’s dirty water and green monsters.
“All I’m worried about is just baseball,” he says. “Everything else, karma will handle.”
While the Red Sox media guide notes Price’s Twitter account “has over 1.8 million followers and more than 15,000 tweets,” just 13 of those have come since Jan. 1, and three of those were retweets. He has not tweeted once since the season started. Once one of the game’s best follows on social media, Price has all but closed up shop.
“A lot of people were unhappy when I signed here,” he says. “All the Blue Jays fans or Tampa Bay [fans]—everything was just flipped. The whole table was flipped. All the people who supported me throughout my entire career were mad that I came here, and some fans in Boston were mad that I signed here. The negativity, it was just too much. So I just leave it alone.”
Whereas once both he and his French bulldog, Astro, were given keys to the city by Tampa’s mayor, in 2013, in Boston he was sauteed for “underperforming” in 2016 (17-9, 3.99 ERA) and getting lit up in his one playoff start against Cleveland (five earned runs in 3.1 innings). No matter that he led the majors that summer with 230 innings. The Sox surely wouldn’t have won the division without him.
As to that underperforming-in-the-playoffs narrative, he was sensational in two outings against Houston in the division series last year, throwing 6.2 shutout innings in relief.
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“He’s a very good pitcher,” Dave Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations, says. “He pitched very well for us in 2016. He did what we hoped he would do. So I think when you start thinking that a guy is going to do better because you signed him to a bigger contract, that’s not practical.”
Smiling again and firing his cutter like his old self, the answer about whether Price can find long-term happiness and success in Boston will come this fall. His seven-year deal includes an opt-out clause following the 2018 season. Ask him about that, and Price is adamant about one thing only.
“I came here to win,” he says. “I want to win multiple times. That’s why I came here. The way the first two years went, I think it would make it that much more special. That’s what I want to do.
“I’ve never been on a duck boat ride. My parents have, and they enjoyed it. But I want to do it at the end of October when it’s really special.”
It is his family—his wife, his son born last May 17, his parents and, yes, Astro—and his teammates and close friends who help him keep things positive in a world gone increasingly the other way. Immerse yourself in others, as he learned at Vanderbilt, and Price figures the negativity will recede. That was missing too often last year.
So when the Sox were wooing free agent J.D. Martinez this winter, Price texted his old Detroit teammate to help recruit him. When Drew Pomeranz was acquired midseason 2016, Price fired a text before the deal was even official (“If you need any help, if you need anything, let me know”). And when Kelly needed a place to live during spring training ’17, Price issued an invitation.
“Friendship,” Kelly says. “I did as much as I could. I’m like, ‘Let me buy dinner at least. Let me buy something.'”
After his recent start in Anaheim, Price talked postgame about his latest success before the reporters all moved on to talk with Betts. It was only then that Price realized what he had neglected to say in his own interview. And he wanted to fix it.
So as he left the clubhouse, the man who warred with Boston reporters last summer quietly circled behind Betts, politely interrupting.
“I didn’t say Mookie’s name in my interview,” Price said, throwing an arm around Betts, who had hit those three home runs. “That’s my bad. Great job. Great player.”
With that, Price disappeared into the night, a smile back on his face.