PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Jamey Wright paused to consider the vision, one that inspires him to this day. Almost 20 years have passed since the Colorado Rockies drafted the Oklahoma City native in the first round, the first of his nine major-league stops, and his tireless chase shows no sign of slowing soon.
Wright’s quest makes his resume read like a run-on sentence: The Rockies (from 1996 to 1999 and 2004 to ‘05), Milwaukee Brewers (’00 to ’02), St. Louis Cardinals (’02), Kansas City Royals (’03 and ‘09), San Francisco Giants (’06), Texas Rangers (’07 to ’08), Cleveland Indians (2010), Seattle Mariners (’10 to ’11) and Los Angeles Dodgers (’12).
For the past seven springs, the 38-year-old reliever has made an MLB roster as a non-roster invitee. He has beaten both odds and time.
But there’s a hole within this showcase of stamina, a void Wright hopes is filled with the Tampa Bay Rays clinching a playoff berth later this fall. Despite all his destinations —through the hours spent shuffling between both leagues and four time zones — he has never made the postseason.
Wright has dreamed about his first champagne shower, the sweet sensation of suds splashing into his eyes. If it happens, he’ll want the experience to last.
“I won’t be wearing goggles,” said Wright, a right-hander, smiling. “I’ll want it to burn. I’ll want to feel it forever.”
Usually, spring is a time for young dreamers. It’s for watching potential stars like outfield prospect Wil Myers, 22, and right-hander Jake Odorizzi, 22, work during lazy afternoons when the pressure is low and possibility high. It’s for wondering where all their drive and desire will lead if their play meets their promise in the coming years.
Yes, spring is a time for the young, but these weeks also offer hope for men in the twilight of their careers. Much like he did last spring with the Dodgers, Wright walks through the Rays clubhouse on mornings like Thursday, glances at faces filtering through an entrance nearby and thinks, “Man, this is going to be it. If we just put it together…”
He thought it would come together for him in 2012. Wright came to the Dodgers a season removed from their 82-win campaign, a product of fresh vision from manager Don Mattingly. They ended last summer on a tear, winning nine of their last 12 games to finish 86-76. But they were eliminated from wild-card contention in a race with the Cardinals on the second-to-last day of the season after a loss to the Giants. Wright called the experience “devastating.”
A decade earlier, he lived another near miss. Wright made four appearances for the Cardinals, earning a 4.80 ERA in 15 innings. He was signed as a late-season stopgap for injured pitchers, though, and wasn’t named to the postseason roster. Eventually, St. Louis lost in five games to the Giants in the NL Championship Series.
“I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world,” Wright said. “But I’m at the point now where that’s something I want to experience. I’ve wanted that (a playoff berth) for the last four or five years. I’m pitching to where, hopefully, I do well enough that I’ll get an opportunity from a team of this caliber. … It’s such a long season, and it proves that every game does count. The wins in April matter in September.”
The fact that Wright has extended his career this long is a credit to his focus. Colorado selected him as the 28th overall pick in the 1993 draft, and after fighting through a stressful rookie season that taught him that nothing in this game is a given, he worked to survive. He has a 4.89 ERA in 1,896.1 innings, and he has struck out 1,070 batters. His record stands at 90-124, though he last started a game in 2007.
A drive was formed early. When Wright was young, his father would sometimes see him lounging in front of the television and say, “You think those other guys are sitting on their butt?”
That spark still pushes Wright — the knowledge that he’s in a race against time. Each year, a new crop of dreamers arrives. Each year, he must be ready. Each year, there’s competition for a job.
His quest to make his eighth consecutive major-league roster as a minor-league invitee brought him to Tampa Bay in January. He’s prepared for whatever happens here, though he’s serious about making the postseason. He’s serious about earning an elusive World Series ring.
“This guy is sincerely one of the nicest people you’ve ever met in this game,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Extremely professional regarding his craft. Very motivated to get to the playoffs, because he has not done that to this point. I think he’s going to be a great influence among other guys. You’ve got Fernando (Rodney), (Joel) Peralta, (Kyle) Farnsworth and him out in that same bullpen. That’s some really good influence.”
Of course, Wright’s chase will end sometime. It has endured thoughts of quitting twice — once five years ago, after his second season with the Rangers, and in 2003, when he pitched 25.1 innings in four starts with the Royals. He gives a vague answer when asked how much more he has left, saying he’ll continue to play however long his wife, Marnie, allows.
He still has passion. He says he has approached the last three years as a process: Learn, improve and master his craft, all to keep himself driven. His arm feels as strong as ever. Other positive signs, like appearing in at least 60 games in four of the past five seasons, encourage him.
“I’ve pitched as well as I’ve ever pitched,” said Wright, who had a 3.72 ERA in 67.2 innings last season. “That motivates you to keep going. I want to play for as long as I can. Hopefully, when it’s all said and done, I’ll have a nice little ring to show for it.”
Even if he never does, Wright’s presence will be felt. On Tuesday, he lingered around a bullpen to watch Odorizzi and right-hander Chris Archer, 24, throw a session. The veteran didn’t say a word, instead taking mental inventory of how his younger teammates look at their peak so he may help later.
“He’s already establishing that he’s a leader, that he wants to help,” Archer said. “He wants to give his knowledge back to us young guys. That’s really refreshing to see. … His resume speaks for itself. He doesn’t have to say or do anything, because he has already done it, and he’s already said it. In this game, you respect what people have done and what they can possibly do in the future.”
Added Odorizzi: “Every time I see him, he’s always working. He’s always in the weight room. He’s always doing his stuff. I never see him taking a break. He’s got a great work ethic. I’ve noticed it, and it makes me want to work hard too.”
It’s unknown where Wright’s work will lead. The postseason? Another near miss? But as he stood near his locker amid the bustle of another morning, his vision was as clear as ever.
A 20-year journey has led him to another stop, another chance for that champagne shower. In his mind, it will be a beautiful burn.
“I’ve had dreams about it,” he said. “Hopefully, it comes true.”