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Rojas aims to make people remember

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The last time Mel Rojas got a major-league save, the Devil Rays were a first-year team convinced good times were just ahead. Pitching ace Joe Kennedy was fresh out of high school. Shortstop prospect B.J. Upton was just finishing the eighth grade.

It has been more than 4 1/2 years, going back to June 10, 1998, since Rojas got the final out in the Mets' 3-2 win over (of all teams) the Rays, retiring Miguel Cairo on a fly ball to right. It has been more than 3 1/2 years, going back to July 1, 1999, since he last pitched in the majors, working for Montreal against Atlanta. It has been more than 2 1/2 years, going back to July 7, 2000, since he last appeared in an official minor-league game, pitching for Boston's Triple-A Pawtucket squad.

In baseball years, it just as well might have been a lifetime.

"It looks like a long time ago," Rojas said Monday. "People hear my name, and they go, 'This guy is still playing baseball?' It's unbelievable how everyone forgets you."

He's 36, bent on making a comeback, and he has come to the right place, a Rays training camp that looks like the land of opportunity. In what is just short of an open tryout, the Rays have invited 39 pitchers to camp, including three who didn't pitch anywhere last season but none who has had the success Rojas has.

He ranked in the National League's top 10 in saves three straight seasons (1994-96), impressive enough that the Expos were willing to trade John Wetteland to make room for him and the Cubs were willing to offer a three-year, $13.75-million contract in December 1996 to lure him away.

"He was filthy," said Billy Hatcher, one of four Rays coaches whose careers overlapped with Rojas'. "He knew what he was doing. He had a good hard fastball and a splitter no one could touch."

Rojas took the Cubs money but got run out of Chicago. A rough start led to an August 1997 trade to the Mets, and his career suddenly was in a downward spiral. He was shipped to the Dodgers in November 1998, then to Detroit in April 1999. He was released a month later after a brutal outing against (of all teams) the Rays, then by the Expos after a brief return.

Somewhere along the way, he thinks it may have been during the 1998 season in New York, he hurt his shoulder. Like many, he tried to pitch through it. Like most, it didn't work.

He had surgery to repair a torn labrum in September 1999 and has been trying ever since to get back.

"I've been working so hard the last three years, it's unbelievable," Rojas said. "I haven't gotten any rest, not even a month's rest. I get up every morning and my wife says, 'You've been working so much,' and I say, 'If I'm going to keep playing baseball, I've got to do it this way.' "

He spent a few months in the Red Sox minor leagues in 2000, got a winter ball shot in 2001 but didn't get to pitch much, had a couple of tryouts last spring but no deals.

But his shoulder felt too good, his pitches too crisp to quit. He was encouraged by his uncles, Giants manager Felipe Alou and brothers Matty and Jesus, and inspired by his three children, none of whom are old enough to remember his success.

Driven to show himself, he went to the independent Atlantic League, proving he could pitch often and effectively (4-1, 13 saves, 3.24 ERA in 31 games). He left in midseason, then impressed in Dominican Winter League, compiling a 2.02 ERA in 20 middle relief outings, and catching the eye of Rays scout Rudy Santin, which led to a minor-league deal.

His midsection may be a little round, but his performance in the early drills has been sharp.

"This is a good opportunity for him in this camp," manager Lou Piniella said. "I like the way he's worked, and I've watched him throw a few times and he's throwing free and easy. So it's a very positive sign."

"I'm telling you," Felipe Alou said, "He's going to get some guys out."

Rojas realizes the hardest work is ahead, refusing to think too much of what success would mean.

"I can't tell you right now," he said. "It's not done yet. Yeah, I'm happy to be in spring training, but I've got to make the team and stay the whole year. Then when I go home I probably won't even be able to sleep."

When you do think about it, it would be quite a story.

"I hope it will be a big story," he said. "I'm going to write a book."

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