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Cox ready and eager to prove worth again

Fine rookie year hasn't guaranteed at-bats, but the Ray remains upbeat.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Dona Cox knew, because mothers always know. Sara Cox knew, because wives are supposed to feel that way. But Steve Cox? He was never quite sure, certainly not as sure as they were, that he was going to make it in the big leagues.

"Your family and your wife, they always believe in you. That's like their job, to have faith in you," Cox said. "My mom always said, 'You're going to make it.' And I'd be like, 'I'm glad you know I'm going to make it, because I sure don't.' "

Cox got there at the end of the 1999 season, a reward for a spectacular Triple-A performance. But he really made it last season, parlaying a strong spring performance into a place on the roster and then into somewhat regular duty in the second half.

Considering that with Fred McGriff at first and veterans throughout the lineup the Rays didn't really have a spot to play Cox, he did pretty well getting into 116 games, starting at first, designated hitter and left and rightfields. He hit .283 with 11 homers and 35 RBI and even got a mention in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

His reward? He gets to come back this spring and again prove himself worthy of a spot in the lineup.

"I think it's just like last year, when you'd say, 'Where would my at-bats come from?' Then I would hit and they found a place for me to play," Cox said. "I think that's the bottom line. If you're going to hit, they eventually will find someplace to play you. I'll play. I might have to sit for a while and wait my turn like I did last year, but that doesn't matter. I've done it before and I can do it again."

As difficult as it was for Cox to break the lineup last season, you could make the case it will be even harder this season.

McGriff is back at first after a strong season, Greg Vaughn expects to be in leftfield every day and the Rays traded for a starting rightfielder, Ben Grieve, who just happens to be one of Cox's best friends.

That leaves Cox in the DH slot, although manager Larry Rothschild has talked of playing Cox more at first and using McGriff as the DH at least occasionally. Those plans could change if Josh Hamilton or Jose Guillen emerges as the starting rightfielder, shifting Grieve to DH full time.

"I have to prove I can play somewhere every day," Cox said. "I don't care where it is. I could care less. It doesn't matter. I just want to be in the lineup every day. I may not play every single day, but hopefully I'll be able to play a lot of the time."

Rothschild said it may take some juggling, but he expects to get Cox in the lineup on a somewhat frequent basis. "If you look at it from the start, it's more wide open this year as far as the at-bats and the possibilities," he said.

Though others might get bogged down in the negative scenarios, Cox, 26, said he is going to focus on the positives of the opportunities. "I'm not going to be one of those guys who gets mad because so-and-so has taken time away from me," he said. "I don't want to get into a selfish thing like that. I want everyone to do well."

Sounds idealistic, but that's Cox, who rarely has anything but a smile, a kind word or a witty observation for anybody. "I don't think I've ever seen him in a bad mood," Grieve said. "Ever."

Aside from his continual search for the perfect at-bat, Cox doesn't need much to keep him happy. He spends most of his free time with Sara, whom he had known for years and married in January 2000. They hang out with the Grieves, go to the movies, watch TV, poke around on the Internet and play with their dogs. "We're practicing parenthood," Cox joked. They have a PlayStation 2 video game that Steve pre-ordered last summer, and Sara says she'll never be any good because he hogs it.

Otherwise, Cox is all baseball, such a field rat that teammates razz him for coming to the ballpark so early.

"I just have so much fun here," Cox said. "It is one of the most relaxing places for me. I like to come in early, sit in the dugout for a while and relax. It's kind of a retreat for me in a sense. I just love it.

"I've always had fun, and I'm sure I always will. I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else, and hopefully I won't ever have to do anything else."

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