Clubhouse is place Percival calls home

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published March 7, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - In certain circles, this place is considered sacred. And by sacred, I mean a place where cruelty passes for entertainment and crudity is an accepted form of art.

The clubhouse for a major league baseball team is filled with millionaires, stocked with gadgets and gizmos, cleaned incessantly by the staff, and still about as genteel as a frat house on nickel beer night. Jokes are flowing, insults are flying and weaknesses are meticulously uncovered.

A clubhouse is unmerciful. It is unforgiving. It is uncouth.

It is the place Troy Percival likes to call home.

Long before the day's first pitch is thrown, Tampa Bay's closer is at work. One minute, he is telling a story to a half-dozen hitters over here, and the next he is having a heart-to-heart with a pitcher over there.

During spring training, Percival usually arrives in the clubhouse before the dawn. He'll hit the weight room, he'll have treatment, he'll wander in search of conversation. On a recent morning, he ended up in the dressing room of the coaching staff, a place not typically frequented by players.

"What the expletive are you doing in here," he was asked.

"I ran out of people to talk to," Percival shrugged.

The Rays clubhouse has never seen a player the likes of Percival. Oh, they've had veteran players with impressive numbers on the backs of their baseball cards. And they've had a few characters who knew their way around a good conversation. But the Rays have never had a player of Percival's stature willing to lead.

Think Hardy Nickerson with the Buccaneers in the mid '90s. Think Dave Andreychuk coming aboard just as the Lightning was beginning to grow. Think of a player who can laugh, scold, cajole or fall on a sword if the situation calls for it.

Already, he has had a quiet conversation with Carl Crawford following the mini-feud with Delmon Young. He has worked with some younger pitchers about learning to gain command of their talent.

He has insulted half of the team, and has plans for the other half. He is, essentially, trying to build a rapport in a room that has often had the feel of 25 strangers waiting in a bus terminal.

"He's like a maitre'd in there," manager Joe Maddon said. "He should have a little towel on his arm. "Your table will be ready in two minutes. ... Sorry your steak was a little overdone.' He's really good at that.

"That's just Percy. He's high energy. He's always been like that. He seeks somebody to share a conversation with, and it could be all over the place. And I really like that. It creates that little buzz among the group."

Just understand that he is no game show host. He was not brought in strictly for entertainment's sake. At 324 career saves, Percival is one strong month away from moving into the top 10 on the all-time list. He is a strong first half from passing Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers.

Percival is one of only three relievers (along with Trevor Hoffman and Robb Nen) to have at least seven consecutive seasons of 30 saves or more.

Sure, at 38, he is not the same pitcher who had three saves and recorded the final out of the 2002 World Series. He has a long surgical scar on his elbow and seven pock marks on his shoulder from arthroscopic procedures. He missed a chunk of 2005 and retired in 2006 when he thought his arm had finally given out.

But Percival returned midway through '07 and posted a 1.80 ERA in a set-up role for the Cardinals. His pitches may not regularly hit 97 mph anymore, but he can throw 92 or 93 and hit his spots better.

The competitive urge never waned during Percival's mini-retirement but what surprised him most was how he missed all of the small moments he had come to take for granted. The fun in the clubhouse, the camaraderie in the bullpen, the cracks in the trainer's room.

"I love being in here. It's an atmosphere you can never replace," Percival said. "I'm not sure if a lot of guys in here are even sure what it means to be in a big league clubhouse. This was not a real big league clubhouse last year. I was brought up with guys like Tony Phillips, Cecil Fielder, Mark Langston, Chuck Finley. I got brought into a veteran clubhouse and saw the professionalism, the fun, the way it's supposed to be handled.

"You want it to be a place where every guy is pulling for every other guy, instead of having some guy worrying about going 4-for-4. It has to be: 'We have to win today.' That's the atmosphere I love. I've been in clubhouses where it didn't feel that way, and it makes for a totally different atmosphere when every guy is worried about what he is doing so he can get paid. You'll find out you stay around the game a lot longer and make more money if you're a good teammate and you win."

The Rays have not necessarily handed the clubhouse to Percival, but Maddon fully understood what was being acquired when the free agent signed a two-year $8-million contract in December.

Maddon was with Percival for years in Anaheim, and wanted to bring that team-first attitude to a clubhouse that has never known what a winning atmosphere feels like.

So Percival works the room. Before games, during games, after games. He tells raucous stories that end up passing for ballplayer parables. He needles people, and invites abuse in return.

"It's not like he's giving you a lesson, you just sort of learn by listening to him," Scott Kazmir said. "It would have been nice to have that three years ago. Really nice. It would have made things a lot easier for us."

The trick, of course, is teaching younger players to develop thick skin without ruining their confidence. Or letting rookies know where they are in the pecking order without insulting their manhood.

If the early days of spring are any indication, the lessons are seeping in. When Maddon instituted a joke-of-the-day policy this spring, hot shot draft pick David Price was one of the first in line.

Without getting into too many specifics, the joke's punch line involved the size of Percival's, um, equipment.

"David Price got him pretty good," reliever Trever Miller said. "Nothing has come of it yet, but that's going to be interesting. Whatever happens is going to be fun."

For the Rays clubhouse, that would be something new.

And long overdue.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.