— MESA, Ariz. — Scott Rice was supposed to be a star, but after 12 seasons in pro baseball, he’s still seeking his first action in the major leagues.
Rice grew up with baseball in his blood. His father, Dennis, played at the University of Southern California, and as Scott grew into his athletic 6-foot-6 frame, it only seemed natural for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. The Orioles certainly thought so, using a first-round sandwich pick to make Rice — fresh out of high school in Simi Valley, Calif. — the 44th player selected in the 1999 amateur draft.
The Orioles gave Rice a signing bonus of more than $700,000 and sent him across the country to their rookie team in the Gulf Coast League. It wasn’t easy being so far away from his family, a 17-year-old who had never done his own laundry suddenly thrust into the world of professional sports.
“I didn’t know how to cook, I didn’t know how to do anything,” Rice said. “I had never called a taxi in my life. I was just kind of thrown into the fire and had to figure things out for myself. It took a while, but it teaches you to grow up a lot faster.”
And he did, rising slowly through the Orioles’ farm system. His numbers gradually improved and he reached Triple-A Ottawa — just one step away from the big leagues — by 2006 at the ripe old age of 24.
He was picked up by the Rangers and invited to major league camp in the spring of 2007, told that he had a chance of making the big league club. But in his very first outing, something went horribly wrong in his left arm.
The team initially diagnosed his sudden pain as the result of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and the dreaded Tommy John surgery seemed to be in his future. But when the subsequent MRI revealed no damage, Rice was instructed to rehab his elbow and try to work his way back into action.
But each time he attempted to come back, the pain returned.
“It felt like every time at the release point like someone was ripping a Band-Aid off the inside off of raw skin,” Rice said. “So every time I got out there I could feel it ripping.
“It really was (frustrating) having doctors tell me there was nothing wrong with me. How can I question a doctor?”
Eventually Rice sought another opinion, and New York Mets team doctor David Altcheck discovered that the real problem was a torn flexor tendon, the same injury that sidelined Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg last season.
The good news was Rice underwent surgery and solved the problem. The bad news is the Rangers dumped him and he was left without any suitors. He turned to the Independent Leagues, signing on with the Long Island Ducks in 2008 in hopes of attracting attention from a big-league organization.
It was the lowest he had been, playing in a league filled with guys who had never played pro ball, or were older and hanging on even though their skills had vanished long ago. “It really makes you figure out whether you love the game or not,” Rice said.
By the time 2010 spring training began approaching, Rice had yet to turn many heads. He started calling teams on his own, begging for someone to just watch him throw. Finally, the Rockies gave him a chance to try out along with a collection of castoffs and long shots.
“There were men’s league guys who were 40, 50 years old trying out with me,” said Rice, emotion creeping into his voice as he recalled the moment. “I said, ‘Look, if I don’t make it here, if I don’t get an invite, I’m done.’ ”
But he wasn’t done. The Rockies were impressed enough to sign him to a minor league deal, and he pitched respectably during stints in Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Colorado Springs.
Rice signed this spring with the Chicago Cubs, and although he seems to be a long shot to make the club, he has found new life in his dream to reach the big leagues.
“I missed three years. I might be 29, but I have the arm of a 26-year-old,” Rice said. “I figure I have a long time left in me. I’ve kind of rekindled the flame.
I feel like I have a different perspective than a lot of people because I’ve had the game basically taken away from me. Now I’m getting a second chance, so it feels pretty good.”