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Ex-teen phenom refuses to be written off

By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 12, 2003

Can you have an ending without a beginning? That's what Bobby Seay wants to know.

Sarcastically, he says he is "yesterday's news," because that's what a newspaper wrote. And with an air of defiance, he snips that if it has been written, then it must be the truth, right?

Yeah, right. One of the Devil Rays' first bonus babies, given a $3-million bonus after being declared a loophole free agent in the 1996 draft, Seay doesn't believe it for a second, but the words -- yesterday's news -- sting nonetheless.

"I think when you accept that money, you accept the responsibility of being labeled that poster boy," he said. "That just comes along with the money. ... This is my seventh spring training, so I guess we (he and Matt White) are yesterday's news.

"We were expected to be impact players in 2-3 years coming out of high school. That's kind of tough, being 18 years old."

Seay, a former Sarasota High All-American, now is 24 but still is that hard-throwing lefty with the nasty curveball. But his is a career beset by minor injuries -- three trips to the DL last season alone -- sending his fast track to the big leagues on a perpetual detour through Orlando and Durham.

If the disappointing ending already is being written on a promising career, then Seay hopes for a plot twist this spring. His work ethic and mentality already have impressed new pitching coach Chris Bosio, and his stuff remains as potent as ever. For the first time in a long time, he is 100 percent healthy and feels he is being given a chance.

"I feel pretty close. I feel more polished. I feel I'm on the brink of being a regular," Seay said. "I'm sure when me and Matt signed for all that money they expected two Cy Young Award winners. That hasn't happened. But I don't feel that I had the shot to prove on a daily basis that I can be here. With the new staff, I think everyone feels they have a fresh start."

Hoping to land a spot in the bullpen, Seay is coming off his best stretch of pitching to close out last season at Durham.

Between stays on the DL, Seay managed to go 2-0 with a 3.28 ERA at Orlando, then strike out 14 at Durham in 15 innings, though his other numbers weren't great. Still, he thought he was pitching well enough to get called up in September.

This spring, he has been solid and clearly in the mix in his efforts to get back to the major leagues, where he last pitched in 2001. Even his mistakes -- a solo homer to Rondell White a week ago -- aren't coming back to haunt him.

Bosio was impressed with how Seay pitched after the homer.

"Everything was positive, everything was tremendous," Bosio said. "Yeah, he gave up a solo shot. Solo homers we don't mind, it's the walks that we care about, and Bobby throws the ball over the plate and will challenge everyone. That's what I like about him."

Though he once had designs on being a major-league starter, Seay thinks that mentally he is suited perfectly for relief work. He is confident enough in his stuff to challenge hitters, and Bosio said he has noticed that Seay is not afraid to attack hitters.

Whether his duties involve short or long relief, Seay is ambivalent. About this he is not: it's time to become a major-leaguer, permanently, no matter the role.

"I think he is very, very close," minor-league pitching coordinator Chuck Hernandez said. "It's just a matter of how he performs in the spring. He still has good stuff he's always had, but he had so many minor nagging injuries. It's hard to develop a rhythm when you're coming back and forth from rehab."

Hernandez has seen another change, one Seay himself mentions frequently: maturity.

Seay says he's past the days of being the fun-loving teenage millionaire and takes a more serious approach to the game. He is far from chiseled but appears to be taking his conditioning more seriously, and Hernandez thinks that may be the difference between playing baseball in St. Petersburg or Durham this season.

"He was not unlike a lot of 18-, 19-, 20-year-old free-spirited young boys," Hernandez said. "I think Bobby is starting to get to the point where he understands he's got some God-given tools and ability and now he's really feeling the time is now to take advantage of that.

"Maybe this will be the year."

Seay may never match the expectations that greeted him as a pro. Injuries aside, it always has been about the money and the losing, he says. If he didn't have that bonus, and the Rays weren't losing, maybe fans would understand all the nagging injuries, sympathize with having to grow up at the speed of a fastball and be receptive to the learning curve.

Instead of writing him off.

"I think to write me off is incredibly premature," Seay said. "I haven't even had a full year in the major leagues. All it takes is one year going in and competing, and as much as people can be down on you they can change their mind."

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