Photo Credit: Michael Ivins / Boston Red Sox
“Has anybody told you about Nathan Stephens?”Gayle Dawson pokes her head out the door of her classroom midway through second-period physics on a quiet Monday morning. She’s ready to share a few stories with her visitor from Boston, who has come to see where David Price, the Red Sox’s new $217 million pitcher, grew up. But first, she has a question.
Here in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 35 miles southeast of Nashville, you can’t talk about David Price without talking about Nathan Stephens—especially in the hallways of Blackman High School. Teammates on the basketball team, honor students and rivals in video game duels that lasted deep into the night, they were inseparable, the “bestest of buddies,” says Dawson, a former track coach who remembers Price and Stephens as the only kids in school who could beat her in a footrace.
They graduated together in 2004, Price going to nearby Vanderbilt University to sling 97-mph fastballs at overmatched batters, Stephens heading to the University of Tennessee with hopes of becoming a teacher and a coach. They stayed close, too, right up until the August day in 2007 when Price, the first overall pick in the amateur baseball draft, signed a 6-year, $11.25 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays and went out in St. Petersburg, Florida, to celebrate with Cleveland Indians pitcher Jensen Lewis, his former college roommate.
“I remember waking up in the Vinoy Hotel in St. Pete… and just seeing all the messages on my phone, how many times my friends called me. I knew something bad had happened,” Price, now 30, recalls on a quiet day in the Sox’s spring training camp in Fort Myers, Florida. “I didn’t know the severity of it or who it had happened to. I just knew it wasn’t good.”
It was Stephens. Cardiac arrest.
One call came from Tyler Morrissey, another of Price’s high school pals, and it hit Price like a bowling ball to the solar plexus. Young and strong, able to do 200 pushups every day, Stephens collapsed during a pickup basketball game. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late. He was 22, and he was gone.
Eight months later, another gut punch. Price was back in Florida, rehabbing a strained left forearm, when he listened to a message on his voicemail. This time it was about Morrissey: dead at 21, killed while riding in a car that crashed into another car.
“It was definitely tough to deal with,” Price says. “I think about those guys all the time. The type of people they were, nobody has a bad word to say about those guys. They were great sons, they were great brothers and they were great friends. If I have a daughter, I want her to marry a guy like Nathan or Tyler. I feel like that’s the biggest compliment you could pay somebody, and that’s the way I feel about them.”
It’s also a reason Price—the ace the Red Sox have craved since they traded away Jon Lester nearly two years ago—seems unlikely to fold under pressure. After withstanding the devastating double-whammy of burying two of his best friends within less than a year, it’ll take more than the white-hot spotlight of being the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history to wilt him.
Photo Credit: Michael Ivins / Boston Red Sox
Price had barely slipped on his neatly pressed No. 24 Red Sox jersey and finished mugging for the cameras during his Dec. 4 press conference at Fenway Park when he took a question about his 0-7 record and 5.27 ERA in eight career postseason starts, the journalistic equivalent of a high-and-tight fastball.
“I think I was just saving all my postseason wins for the Red Sox,” Price said, ever so coolly, with a 500-watt smile. “I think you guys will enjoy those.”
The room erupted with applause. As one team official said later, “That was a fucking great answer.”
Boston isn’t for everyone, especially high-profile professional athletes who come chasing free-agent dollars but are unable to buy love from hard-nosed fans. Former Red Sox left fielder Carl Crawford was wicked thin-skinned. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez wasn’t intense enough. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval’s happy-go-lucky Kung Fu Panda act, so popular in San Francisco, has gone over about as well as Yankees hats in Kenmore Square.
And Price has been a villain here for years. In 2008, a month after making his major-league debut, he recorded the last four outs in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, including a bases-loaded strikeout of J.D. Drew in the eighth inning, to vanquish the Red Sox and send the Rays to their only World Series. During the past seven seasons, he has made 23 starts against the Sox, feuding with David Ortiz in 2013 and inciting a dugouts-clearing brouhaha at Fenway Park a year later.
If Price is being honest, he’d say the Red Sox weren’t his first choice, at least not until they wined and dined him on Nov. 19 at the Southern, his favorite steakhouse in Nashville. Until then, he preferred either the St. Louis Cardinals or the Chicago Cubs, contending teams in the National League, where life is a little easier for pitchers.
But Price never took the easy road en route to the 2012 Cy Young Award and a 3.09 career ERA. He has a competitive streak longer than the Boston Marathon course (stories of his childhood Monopoly games against Stephens and Morrissey are legendary). And he’s not afraid to bet on himself. Although pro scouts packed the bleachers at his high school starts, he resolved to go to college despite the risk of injury or declining performance. He even went so far as to record an outgoing voicemail message in which he told them not to waste their time.
“Some scouts would tell me I was making the biggest mistake of my life,” Price says. “But they failed to mention the 10-hour bus rides and terrible food and having a different coach at every different stop [in the minor leagues]. It’s not as glamorous as scouts make it seem. I saw through that.”
Photo Credit: Kerry Brett
There wasn’t anything phony about the Red Sox’s presentation to Price. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski brought a contingent to Nashville that included team president Sam Kennedy, general manager Mike Hazen, manager John Farrell, special assistant Frank Wren and even principal owner John Henry, who had been converted to the cause after years of opposing the idea of signing pitchers in their 30s to long-term contracts.
Shortly thereafter, they made Price the “Godfather” offer: a 7-year, $217 million whopper that he simply couldn’t refuse.There wasn’t anything phony about the Red Sox’s presentation to Price. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski brought a contingent to Nashville that included team president Sam Kennedy, general manager Mike Hazen, manager John Farrell, special assistant Frank Wren and even principal owner John Henry, who had been converted to the cause after years of opposing the idea of signing pitchers in their 30s to long-term contracts.
“Just meeting with everybody that they brought down, going through that entire process, getting to meet all the guys that are high up in this organization, just sitting there and talking to them and seeing how personable everybody was,” Price says, “I definitely walked away from that meeting seeing myself for the first time as having a realistic opportunity of being a Red Sox.”
Besides, Price says, he has always enjoyed visiting Boston. He appreciates the fans’ passion, even relishes the give-and-take with many of them on Twitter. When he came to town with the Rays, he was known to rent a Hubway and pedal down Newbury Street. Price even has the good sense to go to Dunkin’.
“In the future, we’re going to drive him to Fenway Park,” Red Sox chairman Tom Werner says with a chuckle, a nod to the need for Secret Service-level protection for the team’s $217 million investment.
And if he needed a glimpse of what life in the fishbowl can be like for the Red Sox’s No. 1 starter and highest-paid player, he got it on Dec. 4. Price was walking with Sox athletic trainer Brad Pearson into Massachusetts General Hospital for his physical when he was spotted by a security guard.
“The guy came running up to us, and he was pumped,” Price says, that megawatt smile returning to his face. “Here I am, extremely new to the city, haven’t thrown a pitch in a Red Sox uniform, hadn’t even had my press conference yet—I guess I could’ve still backed out; I don’t know how that works—but here’s this guy. Just the way he received me at that moment, that was very cool.”
Daunting, too—at least for some athletes. But while there is evidence that Price can be sensitive to criticism (after losing to the Red Sox in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS, he lashed out via Twitter at a pair of announcers, calling them “nerds”), he insists he won’t be overwhelmed by the Boston baseball experience.
“I’ve been looked at as an ace since I was 10 years old. That’s nothing new for me,” says Price, who stands 6 feet 5 inches tall and is all arms and legs when he uncoils his body, accelerates his arm and catapults the ball toward home plate. “I don’t pay attention to that outside noise. Everybody on the outside doesn’t expect half of what I expect from myself. If I can go out there and throw the baseball the way I’m capable of throwing it and just be the person that I know I am, I know everybody in Boston will be OK with the end result.”
Photo Credit: Kerry Brett
“Everybody knows what he can do on the field, but I think more importantly his impact in the way he goes about his business and just his whole demeanor is something that can rub off,” says Sox pitcher Rick Porcello, who teamed with Price for the second half of the 2014 season in Detroit. “He’s going to be a great addition. I can’t say enough good things about him.”In Tampa Bay, Price served as a mentor to young pitcher Chris Archer. He did the same late last season in Toronto with Marcus Stroman. And during the first few weeks of spring training, 23-year-old Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez followed Price around like a puppy. Suffice it to say, the Sox believe Price’s influence will go beyond his 200 innings this season.
Archer describes Price thusly: “Everybody feels like they’re David’s best friend.” And the families of Price’s late friends can attest to that.“Everybody knows what he can do on the field, but I think more importantly his impact in the way he goes about his business and just his whole demeanor is something that can rub off,” says Sox pitcher Rick Porcello, who teamed with Price for the second half of the 2014 season in Detroit. “He’s going to be a great addition. I can’t say enough good things about him.”In Tampa Bay, Price served as a mentor to young pitcher Chris Archer. He did the same late last season in Toronto with Marcus Stroman. And during the first few weeks of spring training, 23-year-old Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez followed Price around like a puppy. Suffice it to say, the Sox believe Price’s influence will go beyond his 200 innings this season.
In the 2008 World Series, Price had “Live Like Nate” embroidered on his mitt, a souvenir that he later presented to Stephens’ parents. When he started the 2010 All-Star Game, he flew Morrissey’s parents out to Anaheim, California, to be his guests. And he honors Nathan and Tyler by wearing the dates of their deaths on his glove.
“People ask me what these dates are all the time,” Price says, looking at the stitching on his glove. “I tell them, and they’re like ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ It’s not for people to feel sorry for me. Any time I get a chance to talk about Nathan and Tyler and how special they were, that’s an opportunity I take.”
Price doesn’t stop there. In 2008, he established Project One Four, a foundation that supports youth educational programs by donating money, computers, backpacks, clothing and other supplies. He also teamed with Blackman High to support the Nathan Stephens Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded annually to a college-bound student who exemplifies the same traits that Stephens personified.
“David’s just got this thing where people are drawn to him,” says John McCreery, who teaches communications at Blackman High. “He just has a circle of friends that grows exponentially with whatever he does. That’s how it was in high school. He was good to everyone.”
In Murfreesboro, they have no doubt Price will be good for the Red Sox, too.
Scott Lauber covers the Red Sox for ESPN.