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Changeup may save his career

Pitcher Bobby Munoz revamps his lifestyle in hopes of making Rays.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- His best days already may be lost and Bobby Munoz can accept that. What hurts is knowing exactly where they were left, yet having no way of ever getting them back.

How do you retrieve the hours you spent on so many bar stools? Or the late nights that turned into too many early mornings?

There was a time when Munoz was a pitching prospect with a future. Without realizing it, he became a reclamation project with a past.

Now, two days shy of his 31st birthday, he is a non-roster invitee in the Devil Rays camp. He is not sure whether he can make the ballclub or is destined for Triple-A.

At the moment, he says, that's not important. He has reached a point where self-respect means more than self-gratification and insists that's where his focus must remain.

"In my 20s, I did all of the messing around I think anybody could do in this game," Munoz said. "Now, maybe from 30 on, I can change my ways. Maybe I'm not capable of doing what I could do at one point in this game, but if I work hard enough I think I can still be successful.

"It'd be a shame to throw away my ability. I'd be throwing away something not everyone is born with. Maybe I've realized this a little too late. Hopefully, it's not too late."

There is neither anger nor a guilty shame in his voice. Instead, his words carry the wistful sense of someone who has misplaced the best gift they ever would have.

Not so long ago, Munoz was the kind of young pitcher people talked about. At 6 feet 8, he was imposing and athletic. His fastball was consistently clocked in the mid-90s.

"He had everything a scout would look for. Size, strength, athleticism, a real good arm," said Bill Livesey, who was in the Yankees front office when they drafted Munoz and now is a special assistant to Rays GM Chuck LaMar. "He had a plus-plus fastball, the ability to spin the ball in the form of a curveball and a slider and the aptitude to pick up a changeup.

"It was all there. He could be overpowering."

When he reached the majors, he was just that. Traded to Philadelphia in a deal for Terry Mulholland, Munoz was in the Phillies rotation at age 26.

In his first full month, he was named the National League's Pitcher of the Month in June 1994.

He had magic in his arm and mischief in his soul.

Munoz said he felt like he could throw fastballs past any hitterand party past closing time and never feel it the next day.

His idea of keeping in shape was to ride the stationary bike while sipping his first beer of the night. The only exercise his arm got was lifting another cold one.

The Phillies were a hard-partying group back then, but Munoz said he never understood they also were dedicated to the game. They would tell him to work harder, to take better care of himself, but he never stopped long enough to listen.

"I didn't take myself or the game too seriously. I was there to have fun. I had made it, I was pitching good, I was having fun," he said. "They'd tell me to work hard and I'd think, "What for?' I was young, I was throwing 96 (mph) and nobody could tell me what to do.

"Now it's to the point where I either perform well or the game gets taken away from me."

The slide began in "95 when Munoz hurt his elbow -- an injury he says he may have avoided with better training -- and missed virtually the entire season.

Within two years, the Phillies released him. Over the next few months, the Padres and Dodgers signed and dropped him, too.

Age and a lack of training were beginning to creep up. He began last season in Triple-A Rochester at 292 pounds. He was promoted to Baltimore in August and made his first road trip to Tampa Bay. In the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field, extra material was sewn in his size 52 jersey to get it to fit.

His reputation was not only preceding him, it was following as well.

"When you find yourself sitting at home and nobody wants to sign you, it finally sinks in. You're still throwing 95 (mph) and you're wondering why the hell no one wants you," he said.

"It's a question I asked myself and the question everybody asked me. My fiancee said maybe it wasn't so much ability. She said, "Maybe you should get your a-- in shape.' "

So Munoz worked in the off-season. Not just on his body but on his life. Getting in shape meant changing his ways, deciding what was important.

He showed up early in Tampa Bay, weighing around 255 pounds. He's among the last to leave the clubhouse every day, staying behind to put more time in the weight room.

The Devil Rays say his odds of making the team as a reliever are about as good as any other non-roster pitcher -- which can't be a comforting thought. Tampa Bay will carry four or five right-handers in the bullpen. Four spots already are claimed.

But the Rays say he has at least made an impression with his change in demeanor.

"His reputation was that he wasn't always serious abut his work or doing everything he could to make himself the best pitcher," pitching coach Rick Williams said. "Sometimes it takes an arm injury or bouncing around from club to club for a pitcher with ability to realize that. Sometimes it's too late. Hopefully it's not for him."

Hearing this, Munoz nods. Finally, he said, it's important to him what others think.

He's sure he has good years ahead of him and they will come if he continues to work. In the interim, he just wants people to know he's willing to do what it takes.

"Just work hard. That's all I can say," he said. "Don't be a Bobby Munoz and throw it all away."

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