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Unwavering desire, unwilling arm

Almost 10 years after Matt White got a $10.2-million bonus, a bum shoulder has kept him out of the majors.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 12, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - There really isn't much more Matt White can do.

No matter how hard he works, no matter how many surgeries he has or adjustments he makes, no matter how many different ideas he considers, it seems less and less likely that his cranky shoulder will ever allow him to reach the big leagues, or perhaps even to pitch again competitively.

And no matter what he says or does - short of winning games in the majors - it seems more and more likely that he will end up forever labeled, deservedly or not, one of the game's biggest wastes of money.

It, somehow, has been nearly 10 years since the Devil Rays stunned the baseball world, making what then-general manager Chuck LaMar called "truly an outstanding investment" by giving White - an 18-year-old high school player, for gosh sake, who used a draft loophole to become a free agent - a record $10.2-million bonus.

And the passage of time has not been kind.

The lofty expectations, the can't-miss promise, the projections of greatness read like ancient history. The injuries, starting during a stint with the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, that blocked him from getting there seem easily forgotten. Perhaps unfairly, White is judged not by what he did or how close he came, but solely by what he didn't do.

So does that make him a bust?

"If you sign a guy for $10-million, you want him to produce at the major-league level. That's the ultimate goal, so, yes, if you look at it that way," White said.

"But if you look at the circumstances of what happened, I think I reached some of my potential. I was there on the brink. They had brought me along at a good rate. I was ready to produce, and an injury occurred. If you look at it realistically that way, then you can't really say it's a bust. Because I think I did what I needed to do in order to be as good as I could be."

* * *

Reality can be found at a locker at the end of a row amid the 160 mostly faceless players at the Rays' minor-league spring training camp.

White is 27. He hasn't pitched in a game in more than 21/2 years. He is still battling the effects of a third shoulder surgery. And he doesn't know when, or even if, he will take the mound again.

Despite some encouraging signs coming into spring training, White's shoulder is again tight and his velocity down into the low 80s, a long way from the 96 mph fastball that made him one of the game's most touted prospects.

His best-case scenario is to spend a few months building arm strength, working his way up to batting practice then pitching in minor-league games. At the opposite end is the very real possibility that he will decide, possibly soon, that enough is enough.

"I think I'm going to get to the frustration point where I don't think there's going to be any more months that are going to do any more good," White said. "At some point, you have to say, "Hey, it's not going to get any better,' and move on. Now, that's a tough thing to deal with. But you have to be open and honest about it. You can't keep trying forever."

In some ways, it's a credit to White he has stuck it out this long.

With the $6.5-million or so that was left after taxes invested securely, he certainly doesn't need the money, joking that his spending habits are, shall we say, as conservative as ever. After nearly a decade of being known as the $10-million kid then the high-priced flop, he understandably might prefer a spot in the shadows.

But that's not White's way. If there was a high school athlete who somehow could be worthy of a $10.2-million bonus, White might have been the one.

Mature. Smart. Respectful. Determined. Responsible. And tremendously talented.

"A world-class kid," Rays Triple-A pitching coach Joe Coleman said. "The kind you'd want your daughter to marry."

"I know what he wanted to do," said former Rays minor- and major-league pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, now with Detroit. "He wanted to be successful. He wanted to play. He wasn't one of those guys who grabbed the money and ran with it. I'll tell you that right now: He busted his a-- every day we had him. He worked as diligently as anyone over there. He wanted to get better. He was receptive to getting better. But when that thing doesn't work, it don't work."

And when there's nothing that anyone can do, that's even worse.

* * *

Given all the hype, including former managing general partner Vince Naimoli's introductory Roger Clemens reference and prediction of a 21-win debut season, and his own deep sense of responsibility to the organization, White faced pressure from the 1996 beginning of his career.

"I think he was trying to justify it and show us all that he was worth all that, and that's tough on an 18-year-old," Hernandez said.

After some fitful starts, the 6-foot-5, 237-pound right-hander appeared to find himself during the 2000 season with Double-A Orlando, going 7-6 with a 3.75 ERA, then moving up to Triple-A Durham for six starts, posting a 3-2 record and 2.83 ERA. He had command, he had control, he had confidence.

"The last 3-4 starts, he just totally dominated," Coleman said. "With the way he was pitching, he could have beaten good teams in the big leagues at that time. He may have been the best we've had in this organization that I've seen."

The Rays considered promoting White to the majors but - in one of those "What if?" decisions - instead let him join the U.S. Olympic squad in Australia, something he wanted to do. During a pretournament game, he felt a tug in his shoulder after throwing a pitch - a two-out, 2-and-2 changeup - and has never been the same. After his combined 10-8, 3.54 record in 2000, he was 4-15, 5.53 over the next three seasons, didn't pitch the past two and had three surgeries on his shoulder.

"I shake my head at anybody who says by any means he didn't develop into what he should have been," said Rays reliever Travis Harper, a minor-league teammate and close friend. "He did. The injury just cut it short. He was right there, and he was dominating."

"He was pretty much ready for the big leagues," said pitcher Bobby Seay, another of the Rays' million-dollar bonus babies who didn't meet expectations. "He's a bulldog competitor. He had the makeup. He had the tools. His arm just didn't let him go. It's unfortunate."

* * *

White has not given up. He still loves being on the field, says he is energized by the progress he made just to be able to throw and participate in fielding drills for the first time since 2003.

There are days - the good days - when he still daydreams about making it to the majors.

"I think it would be an unbelievable feeling," he said. "I can still see myself there."

But there are other days - the bad days - when he feels the pain and the frustration and talks like the end is near.

"That goes through my mind a lot," he said.

White used to be a regular at Tropicana Field, keeping tabs on the Rays he came through the minors with and remains close to, such as Harper and Aubrey Huff. But about three years ago, White decided he might have been too close. He moved from Largo to the Atlanta area, where his wife, Kristin, has family, and he stopped coming to Rays games, attending only one in the past three seasons.

"It was kind of tough," he said. "A lot of my buddies had gotten up there, and I wanted to be out there with them."

The feeling, Harper said, was mutual: "It just feels like he should be here now."

White, who has signed minor-league deals the past three years to stay with the Rays, shows up early every morning trying to find something that makes him better.

"We all know his character, we all know his work ethic," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."

White will meet soon with his doctors, trainers and team officials to map out a schedule. He'd like to talk to pitchers who had similar surgeries. In short, he's willing to do anything he can. (In the interim, the Rays are pursuing litigation against an insurance company to recover some of the bonus.)

"I'm realistic about it," White said. "I don't want to have any regrets that I didn't do everything I could."

That's one thing no one can question.