Twenty-two years old, recently promoted to Triple-A Durham where he posted a 3-2 record with a 2.83 ERA, Matt White was this close to finally making it to the major leagues. The plan was right on schedule.
The day the Devil Rays signed White, a road map to the majors was laid out. It called for three years in the minors and Tropicana Field in 2000.
It was 2000! He was successful. All he had to do was wait for the Rays to call and tell him to come pitch for them.
So he waited. And waited. And waited. And waited.
For the record, White still is waiting.
Oh, he got a call from the Devil Rays. But it wasn't the one he had been hoping for since Nov. 25, 1996, when he signed a record-setting $10.2-million free agent contract.
This call told him that rather than having him play the final month for a Tampa Bay team stumbling toward a 69-92 record, Rays officials had elected to allow White to travel to Australia and join the U.S. Olympic team.
Not that White minded; he'll be the first to tell you that he's a "pretty patriotic guy" and that "one of the best things you can do is represent your country." The problem is the call he got (sending him to Australia) seems to have postponed, or perhaps nixed, the one (to the major leagues) he yearns for.
While White was down under he pitched one inning in a pre-Olympic warmup when he felt soreness in his right shoulder. It was enough to keep him off the field the rest of the Olympics, though he remained in Sydney with the team.
He started the 2001 season at Durham but had surgery May 31 to clean up the rotator cuff. Two years later White's still fighting back from that operation.
"I'm trying everything, but I'm not real sure what it's going to take," White said from Double-A Orlando, where he is scheduled to make his third start of the season Saturday. "The procedure shrunk the shoulder area and I have to get it stretched out. It's a time thing. There's nothing else you can really do. You can try to envision doing whatever you want but, if the arm's not cooperating, things aren't going to come together."
Injuries have been a way of life since White, who was voted National High School Player of the Year by USA Today, Baseball America and Gatorade, signed at 18 out of Waynesboro (Pa.) High.
A stress fracture in his back delayed the beginning of his pro career in 1997. He missed five weeks with a strained oblique in 1999 and all but seven starts in 2001 and the first two months of 2002 due to the surgery. White joined Orlando on May 27 after beginning this season in St. Petersburg working out the shoulder.
His first start was a no-decision after he allowed four runs on five hits while striking out four and walking three in five innings. The line got a little better his second time out (five innings, four hits, two earned runs, four walks, one strikeout) but White took the loss.
He will take a 5.40 ERA into Saturday's start at Greenville. For White it will be another step in a comeback he hopes will end right back where he started this season: St. Petersburg. Only this time he wants a locker at Tropicana Field, not the Naimoli Complex.
"I'm still on the 40-man roster, and I'm focused on working on what I need to do to get to the big leagues," White said. "I try not to get caught up in the hoopla or anything that doesn't have anything to do with me not getting to the big leagues. You can't worry about things."
That includes phone calls telling him to head south for the winter rather than up to the majors. And questions about whether the shoulder injury in Australia will keep him from making that jump.
"I don't think I'd trade (the Olympic) experience for anything," White said. "I still think I can make it to the big leagues."
All it takes is a call. And a little bit of patience.