ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Inside the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field, it’s a night for good times. The sound system’s thump-thump-thump sets a fun-loving mood. Players for the Tampa Bay Rays, enjoying a victory, are making light-hearted conversation while mixing in occasional hijinks.
Over in the corner, it’s all business.
The team’s oldest player, Rickie Weeks Jr., is quietly sitting at his locker stall, slowly putting himself together, his back to the room.
Soon, he will slip away, barely making a sound.
“But when Rickie says something, we listen,’’ Rays pitcher Alex Cobb said. “He knows how to act like a pro. We respect him so much. Nobody has to say it. It’s just the truth.’’
To the untrained eye, Weeks appears to be a veteran with his best days long behind him, a name that once generated considerable buzz and All-Star votes. Now a first baseman who plays almost exclusively against left-handed pitching, the former Southern star batted .216 with two home runs and eight RBIs before landing on the disabled list.
A torrid performance in spring training hasn’t translated to the regular season, where Weeks has 49 strikeouts in 97 at-bats.
“This game can humble you,’’ said Weeks, 34, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft, going to the Milwaukee Brewers. “You have to keep grinding.’’
It’s the only way Weeks has known. With an impenetrable approach to his routine and a solid belief in playing baseball the right way, he came to the Rays with a minor-league contract and no guarantees.
Before the opening day game, after playing his way onto the roster, Weeks stood before his new teammates and spoke from the heart. He congratulated the rookies. He challenged the veterans. He implored everyone to stick together and play hard every night.
“The way Rickie carries himself is very impressive,’’ manager Kevin Cash said.
“He just has the ability to capture a room,’’ Cobb said. “Not everyone can do that. Some people try and it falls flat. Not him. I think everyone is aware of who he is.’’
Well, sort of.
“I heard he was a pretty high draft pick,’’ center fielder Peter Bourjos said.
The facts were given. Rickie Weeks: No. 2 overall.
“Really?’’ Bourjos said. “You’d never get that impression. He works like he’s trying to win a job. I doubt he would ever talk about the things he has done.’’
The accomplishments are well-documented. When Weeks was completing his career at Southern University, winning his second NCAA batting title, compiling the best career batting average in college history and earning the Golden Spikes Award as the game’s top college player, Rays rookie second baseman Daniel Robertson was entering the third grade.
“Any time something happens I’m not sure about, Rickie is the first guy to pull me aside and tell me how to go about things,’’ Robertson said. “I can’t quote all of his stats or anything. I know he’s somebody special in this game. And I know how special he already has been to me.’’
What a discovery
In the year 2000, Cincinnati Reds national cross-checker scout Jerry Flowers arrived early for a game at Lake Brantley High School in Central Florida, a prime destination for baseball’s talent evaluators.
Flowers, by custom, came for batting practice. But the player he came to check on didn’t catch his eye.
Instead, it was a smallish infielder, dead serious, with a thunderous bat.
It was Rickie Weeks.
Line drive to left. Line drive to center. Line drive to right.
Whack! Whack! Whack!
“Rickie Weeks? Rickie Weeks? Why don’t we know about this kid?’’ Flowers remembers thinking.
During the game, Flowers inquired about where the player had committed to college.
Weeks had no scholarship offers.
Flowers, who once played and coached baseball at Southern, immediately called his college coach, Roger Cador.
“I just saw this player,’’ Flowers said breathlessly over the telephone. “I don’t think anybody is on him. You need to get on him. Trust me. You need to get on him.’’
Cador called Weeks’ mother, Valeria.
“And the rest is history,’’ Cador said with a laugh.
Actually, history unfolded in a memorable way.
Cador and Weeks’ mother had an instant connection. She’s a spiritual woman, a Pentecostal minister who now gives booming talks to her congregation. She trusted the coach and the promise to take care of her son.
“It went so well that his mother actually committed Rickie to Southern right then and there, over the phone,’’ Cador said. “We hadn’t even met. This was our first conversation. So trust? Yes, you could say there was some trust. And Rickie did something that I wish more kids would do. He listened to his parents.’’
At first opportunity, Cador came to Florida and watched Weeks play in an all-star game. He could hardly believe what he saw.
“My thought was, ‘Why hasn’t anybody else seen what I’m seeing in Rickie?’ " Cador said. “Nice, loose hands. Unbelievable bat speed. The ball came off the bat real nice. He had the kind of body you could work with.’’
Afterward, Cador had his first meeting with Weeks and his mother, who was taken by the sight of the 6-foot-5 coach and kept repeating, “I knew I was right! I knew I was right!’’
They talked for about 90 minutes outside the stadium. Cador told Weeks if he worked hard at Southern, he could reach his biggest goals.
Weeks, generally a man not given to bold statements, looked Cador in the eye and said, “I’m going to work hard. I want to be good.’’
Weeks kept his word.
From unknown to star
Southern already had some baseball tradition. It’s where Lou Brock led the then-NAIA program to a national championship.
But when Cador took over in 1984, it was at a low ebb. There was no field — Southern took a school bus for its games at a city park — and all of the program’s equipment could fit into a grocery cart.
It was a long road to solvency, one that was helped by the equipment generosity of Dusty Baker, who played for the Atlanta Braves when Cador was in the organization’s farm system.
Still, it’s a stretch for players with options to choose a historically black college or university. And once it became clear that Weeks was the real thing, there were furious attempts by others to convince him to transfer.
Weeks always said no.
“Southern was like my home away from home,’’ Weeks said. “It was a beautiful place. I made friends there that will last a lifetime. That’s where it all began for me.
“Southern was loyal to me. So I was loyal to Southern. It was probably the best time in my life for playing baseball. I was kind of an adult, but still a kid. You take the business out of it and it’s purely the love of the game. There are so many fun things to look back on.’’
As a sophomore at Southern, Weeks hit .495 with 20 home runs and won the NCAA batting title. As a junior, he hit .479 with 16 homers — and won another NCAA batting title. He ended his career with a .473 batting average, the highest in NCAA history.
“I’m thinking back to the 2002 NCAA regional at LSU, where Rickie hits a ball to center, so doggone far, it goes off a railing and looks like a ball Jose Canseco would hit,’’ Cador said. “I’m thinking back to 2001, when we beat No. 1-ranked LSU, when he hit a line drive that just cleared the infield. The center fielder came in. It slammed off the top of the center field wall. On a line.
“I mean, these are true stories. I hate to compare anyone to Hank Aaron — and I knew Hank personally — but Rickie had that kind of strength in his hands and wrists. He would hit these line drives down the left-field line and they would never go foul. I think he hit them so hard, they didn’t have a chance to go foul. What a talent.’’
But talent was only part of the story.
When Cador first met Weeks, he noticed a speech impediment, a stutter. Cador knew big things were ahead for Weeks — “lots and lots of interviews’’ — so he quietly arranged for a speech therapist to work with Weeks. No one ever knew.
Except his mother.
“You love my son,’’ she cried over the phone to Cador. “He went to the right place. You’re looking after him.’’
Cador also became part-coach, part-promoter. He put the Golden Spikes Award on the radar for Weeks — still the first and only HBCU player to capture the prestigious honor — and knew it would take a calculated plan to make it a reality.
“Rickie had numbers, but if you’re at a historically black institution, it takes more than numbers, you got me?’’ Cador said.
He made sure Weeks’ story was exposed to the nation. Doing interviews was built into the player’s schedule. Before long, not only did he win the Golden Spikes Award, but he was picked second overall.
“Rickie accomplished things at Southern that we haven’t seen before or since,’’ Cador said. “We had people following us around. Everybody wanted to see this Rickie Weeks player. He was like a phenomenon.
“He did not disappoint. As they say, he sure looked good in his uniform. He had a pleasing personality. And he delivered on the field. It was the time of his life. It was the time of a lot of people’s lives.’’
'Playing the game very hard'
You might not recognize Weeks today. The dreadlocks are gone, replaced by a short-cropped haircut. He is married to the former Tiphany Easterling, who works as a high-end realtor. The family’s story has only grown with the successful major-league career of his younger brother, Jemile, who was also a first-round pick.
But some things have never changed.
Through his MLB career — 12 seasons in Milwaukee, one-year stopovers with Seattle and Arizona, then his current stint in Tampa Bay — his work ethic and leadership have been unquestioned.
So how does it happen?
How does a guy go almost undiscovered in high school, then become a two-time NCAA batting champion, a Golden Spikes Award winner, the No. 2 overall draft pick and a largely productive 15-year veteran?
“I always had the mentality that I was going to last a long time, that I was going to stay around as long as possible,’’ Weeks said. “The biggest thing is I believe I’ve done it the right way, playing the game very hard. I think God did me favor and put me in good positions, but I took advantage of that by working hard.
“To stick around, first, you have to be a good player. Second, you have to be a good person and a good teammate. If people don’t like you or you don’t fit in well, you can’t just go from team to team or even be with one team for a long time like I was with Milwaukee. If you bring some value in the clubhouse, it helps a lot.’’
Value in the clubhouse?
The Rays practically rave about Weeks.
“We’re in Seattle and a guy on the other team doesn’t run a ball out,’’ Cash said. “I’m going out to make a pitching change, and I hear him telling our young players, ‘We don’t do that. We don’t ever do that.’ If you look at good ballclubs, there are always one or two guys who hold players accountable. He does that for us.’’
“Rickie does not let his performance dictate his mood,’’ Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “He’s the coach’s dream in the way he echoes our message that there are certain ways to be a professional, on and off the field. You can pout all you want, but no one cares. That’s Rickie’s message. When we (coaches) say it, it’s like talking down to them. When he says it, it’s reality.
"The way he lives is so consistent that everyone buys in immediately. He helps the other guys equally well in honing their performance and handling failure.’’
“He shows us that no matter what you’re going through in life, you put all that aside once you get here, whether you’re in the lineup or not,’’ Bourjos said. “You’re here to win. It’s easy for guys to get upset with their role and not be prepared. Rickie reminds us all to be ready because you never know when your name will get called.’’
Weeks’ name doesn’t get called like it used to, when he had a striking presence for the Brewers, when he hit 29 homers in one season as a second baseman and made the All-Star team.
But Weeks appears to be one of those rare players where numbers alone don’t nearly equate to his worth.
“It has been great with the Rays because the guys battle, and they are tough mentally,’’ Weeks said. “Maybe the game has changed in some ways, but I don’t think my approach has changed at all.’’
He plays hard.
He plays hurt.
He doesn’t take shortcuts or offer excuses.
“I firmly believe that’s the way you have to do it,’’ Weeks said.
The weeks have led to months and years … and a long career. It didn’t happen by accident. All these years later, it’s still all business, all the time.