ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Early Tuesday afternoon, David Price walked through a hallway toward a destination he called home for six-plus seasons.
Without any reservations, he entered the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse at Tropicana Field wearing his dark Detroit Tigers cap as a visitor behind enemy lines. He parked himself near a television for a game of EA Sports NHL 14 on Xbox 360 against right-hander Jake Odorizzi, two former teammates turned opponents after the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
A piece of Tampa Bay will forever stay with the Tigers left-hander, who’s scheduled to pitch against his former club Thursday. If that afternoon will be the final step in moving on for both sides, then Tuesday was a moment to recognize how Price and the Rays remain in transition after the blockbuster deal. Feelings are strong.
"A little different," Price said of his return, before the Rays and Tigers began a three-game series. "But I’m used to this place. I’m used to all the guys. I know everybody’s name. It was good to see everybody."
"When he gets to the Hall of Fame," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "hopefully, he goes in as a Ray."
Price, to some degree, will remain a Ray no matter what he accomplishes in Detroit or any other location his career might take him. This is where he entered the majors in 2008. This is where he won the American League Cy Young Award in 2012. This is where he hoped he could stay even with the trade rumors swirling in June and July, a sentiment he repeated Tuesday.
"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "This is home to me."
These homecomings of sorts are nothing new for the Rays. The atmosphere Tuesday felt much like it did when right-hander James Shields returned to Tropicana Field with the Kansas City Royals last year.
It’s a product of the way Tampa Bay does business, and despite the sometimes-awkward encounters between Price and the media before he was sent to Detroit in the three-team deal, he spoke in a calm way at the center of a large group tucked in the Tigers’ dugout late in the afternoon. He smiled. He talked about scanning box scores to see how Rays starters fared on any given day. He fielded a question from Tampa Bay outfielder/designated hitter Matt Joyce, who playfully asked how Price would attack Rays hitters.
"I plan on hitting Matt Joyce in the ribs," Price said, grinning.
Such exchanges are indicative of the bonds Price formed here. He’s trying to do the same at his new home, and his reflections Tuesday brought to mind a college freshman returning to his old high school for the first time to reconnect with friends and mentors. There was utility man Ben Zobrist standing near the Rays’ dugout and cracking about how Price looked terrible in orange. There was Price, after completing a television interview, lobbing two balls in a playful way toward the Rays’ stretch lines in right field.
There’s nothing wrong with looking back, especially with the pangs of a former life fresh. In time, Price will develop similar bonds in Detroit, even if those connections will lack the sentimental power of all the firsts felt within these walls.
"The normal is not the normal anymore," said Rays right-hander Alex Cobb, who’s scheduled to pitch against Price on Thursday. "It’s just something you don’t want to get used to, but you do. Eventually, you get used to it. So he’s been awesome since he got traded. He’s been dealing with it great. He still texts everybody on this staff, ‘Happy start day’ when it’s our turn to go through. We do to him as well. So the friendships will never be lost. It’s just a different type of friendship now."
It will be a different type of game Thursday, too. As Price said Tuesday, he’ll try not to smile when on that familiar mound, which means extra focus will be required when attempting to beat friends. This will be an odd test.
What will it be like to face former teammates three weeks after being traded?
"I can’t imagine what it’s going to be for him," Odorizzi said. "This was his spot. He was the king around here, so it’s going to be probably just like old times for him."
This week will be like old times until Thursday afternoon, but a new normal will begin then. A time for transition will be over, because it will be Price against his former team with a single game and possibly American League wild-card implications at stake.
Who knows how he’ll respond? Joyce was asked about the best way to get inside his former teammate’s head.
"Beat him," Joyce said. "That’s the biggest thing — score some runs and beat him. He hates to lose, and so do we."
Until then, Price will enjoy his homecoming in the place he found comfort so many times during so many successful starts. Come late Thursday, he will fly away again, bound for Minnesota in the latest stop in his new colors.
Before saying goodbye once more, though, there will be plenty of chances to recall the glory enjoyed in his old haunt.