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Lefty Rice looking for his big break with Mets

Lefty Rice looking for his big break with Mets

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Scott Rice was stuck in independent ball again. It was 2011 and, with no other options, Rice hooked on with the York (Pa.) Revolution as a 29-year-old journeyman reliever. He did not want to be there. So each Monday, he flipped open a phone-book-thick baseball directory and dialed the office number for every Minor League executive he could find.

Rice went in ascending order, from those with few lefties at the high levels of their organizations to those with many, cold-calling 20 to 30 farm directors per week. All he wanted was an opportunity.

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But "nine times out of 10," Rice said, "you don't get a call back."

Such is life for a left-handed reliever who, due to a 14-year combination of bad luck, poor timing and inconsistent performance, has never reached the Majors despite a decade-and-a-half professional career. Rice is in Mets camp this spring, battling four other left-handers for what appears to be one open spot in the bullpen.

His dream is no different than it was when he started.

"It's been a journey, man," Rice said. "I've been through a lot of adversity. I've been through a lot of things that don't happen in a normal career. I just keep pushing on. Eventually it's going to happen."

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Rice was not always a long shot. A former supplemental-round Draft pick of the Orioles, the left-hander signed out of high school as a 17-year-old starting pitcher. His future seemed relatively bright.

Looking back, Rice realizes he "had no idea what I was doing" as a young pitcher, posting a 10.38 ERA with plenty of wildness during his debut summer. He needed three full seasons to escape rookie ball and another two just to arrive at Double-A.

This all started in 1999. Rice marvels looking back at it, at a career that took him to "ballparks that Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle played at."

As the calendar flipped, his statistics improved, but the call never came. Rice bounced from the Orioles' organization to the Rangers. Then he tore the flexor tendon in his left elbow, underwent surgery and landed in independent ball for the first time. Phones around baseball began ringing every Monday.

Around the same time, the last of Rice's early Minor League teammates were dropping out of baseball. They went to work in offices and hospitals, enrolled in school, went anywhere and everywhere but back to the diamond. One of them, Woody Cliffords, began working full time at the training facility he founded while in college.

"It gets tough," said Cliffords, who trains Rice and other athletes at SportsWest Performance in Southern California. "You're not making a lot of money. You're on a peanut-butter-and-jelly diet pretty much. You're far away from home. If you go on a road trip for 10 days and it's not going well for you, that 12-hour bus ride seems like a 20-hour bus ride."

Cliffords, who keeps statistical records of his clients' performance, noted that Rice is a better athlete now, at age 31, than he was in his mid-20s. The left-hander ranks second in the training facility's history -- higher than Ryan Braun -- in a measure of "rotational power," a trait common to power pitchers and elite sluggers.

Five times per week during the winter, for nearly three hours a day, Rice works out at SportsWest; the result is a slim 6-foot, 6-inch frame that makes him look younger than his 31 years. Cliffords, who trains clients from MLB, the NFL and the NBA, considers him an elite athlete.

"He's one of the older guys there and he's keeping up with 20-year-olds," said Mets teammate Josh Satin, who met Rice four years ago at SportsWest. "Every year he comes back thinking, 'This is the year.'"

So far, Rice has continually been wrong. He nearly made it to the big leagues early in his career with the Orioles, but an ill-timed injury arrested his momentum. When the Dodgers made him their final cut last spring, Rice figured his chance would come soon. But a new ownership group bought the team and infused it with cash, acquiring high-priced veterans instead of Minor League retreads.

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Now Rice is in Port St. Lucie, where the Mets hope to fill their bullpen with two of the six left-handed relievers in camp. Josh Edgin will almost certainly take one of the spots, and Pedro Feliciano was favored for the other before discovering he has a cardiac issue. But even if Feliciano cannot pitch, Rice must beat out Robert Carson, Darin Gorski and Aaron Laffey for the lone remaining spot.

Such is the adversity of the thing, which Rice has seen before. He nearly quit baseball after the 2009 season, but another cold call -- this one to an old coach, Bo McLaughlin -- earned him a spot in Rockies camp. McLaughlin told Rice that if he beat out 22 other left-handed pitchers, the Rockies would give him a Minor League job. He did, and they did.

Three years later, Rice is still waiting for an even bigger break. He entered Monday's game with a man on base in the fifth inning, inducing a ground ball with his first pitch to Nationals third baseman Matt Skole. Rice recorded four outs in total, striking out one and allowing one hit, inching toward a job that Cliffords said "would mean everything for him."

Until now, each of Rice's Major League camps has ended the same way: with a manager calling him into his office, telling him he has not made the team.

Sitting in the Tradition Field clubhouse one recent afternoon, Rice allowed himself to consider an alternate ending.

"I've been through it so many times in my mind," Rice said. "I've played through the scenario so many times that I honestly don't know how I would react. I know that I'd be more prepared than I ever was, and I know that I wouldn't be overwhelmed. I know I'd be as ready for the situation as I could possibly be."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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