David Price’s biggest responsibility in high school was mowing the grass once a week at his family’s home on Mayfair Avenue. His life was a happy blur of baseball, basketball, golf, and soccer.
Especially baseball. No one in Murfreesboro, Tenn., could remember a player like Price, a lefthander surrounded by scouts every time he pitched.
But the idea of going away to play professionally was overwhelming.
“My dad told me I was still a puppy and I wasn’t ready to get off the porch and run with the big dogs,” Price said. “It’s not something an 18-year-old kid wants to hear, especially when significant money could be made. But I bought into it and I understood.’’
So he accepted a scholarship to play at nearby Vanderbilt University, so his parents and brothers could see him play.
But the major league scouts following Price didn’t accept that. The calls came day and night, even when he was in class. They told Price he would make millions as an early-round draft pick. College was too much of a risk.
“They said I was making the worst mistake of my life,” Price said. “They said they knew what was best for me.”
Price finally changed the voicemail message on his mobile phone. “Hey, this is David Price. To all the scouts who are calling, I definitely appreciate all the time you took out to spend time with my family and myself. But I made my decision and I’m going to go to college. Thank you.”
“I knew I wasn’t ready to take on all that responsibility having the upbringing that I did,’’ he said. “I wanted the college experience, and not just for baseball.”
Price fell to the 19th round of the major league draft. He declined an offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers and played three years at Vanderbilt. He starred for the Commodores, was picked first in the 2007 draft, and was pitching in the playoffs for the Tampa Bay Rays when he was 23.
Price knew what was best then, and he is convinced he made the right decision last December when he signed a seven-year, $217 million contract to play for the Red Sox.
“David doesn’t do anything on a whim,” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. “He picked the Red Sox because he’s convinced he will succeed there.
“He is a very unique person. I know some people wonder whether he can handle the pressure in a place like Boston. Those people don’t know David.”
‘The best choice for us’
The Red Sox have badly misjudged high-profile free agents in recent years, bringing in an assortment of players already in decline or with personalities unsuited for an environment heavy in attention and expectations.
From Daisuke Matsuzaka through Carl Crawford and now Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, the Sox have made a series of what are regarded by many as expensive mistakes.
What makes Price different? Those who know him best, including the Red Sox official who made the decision to sign him, see a player in the prime of his career equipped to handle the transition to a major media market. At 30, Price could be that rare player who meets the responsibility that comes with a record contract.
“David Price is unique,” said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who as president of the Detroit Tigers traded for Price during the 2014 season. “We wanted him from the start. He was the best choice for us, given his pitching and what kind of person he is.”
Dombrowski based that assessment on personal experience. Unlike many executives, he regularly travels with his teams and interacts with the players closely. No scouting report on Price was needed.
“He’s genuine,” Dombrowski said. “He’s not going to change who he is.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon was with Price for seven seasons in Tampa Bay. He saw the lefthander mature into a five-time All-Star and Cy Young Award winner.
“Whatever you see at this point, you’re going to see [in Boston],” said Maddon. “He’s going to pitch the same. With good health, he’s going to pitch the same way.
“Off the field, the community is going to love him. He’s going to get involved. His teammates are going to love him because when that guy’s not playing, he’s as supportive as anybody I’ve ever met as a starting pitcher who’s not playing that day.
“He’s transparent. That’s who he is. There’s nothing fabricated. That’s who he is. I don’t anticipate anything to change.”
Price was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays last July and helped a mediocre team make a run to the American League Championship Series.
In just a short time, Price became a leader. A starting pitcher’s influence on a team is often limited to the day he takes the mound. But Price overcomes those boundaries.
“He gets all his teammates involved in winning and he wants to help everybody,’’ said Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson. “He keeps things fun. He’s in tune to what’s going on. That’s rare in the professional game, to be involved with everybody like that.
“You don’t see that with every starter. They usually stay out of the way.”
Price believes there are essentially two kinds of people: faucets and drains. He wants to be a faucet.
“I know how tough this game is,” he said. “I want to be there for my teammates.”
Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis has already witnessed the effect Price can have on others.
On Saturday, when Price pitched two innings of a simulated game, young lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez parked himself behind the backstop to watch each pitch. He then walked off the field with Price, asking questions.
“That was the first thing I noticed, Eduardo sitting an angle where he could see everything,” Willis said.
As a coach, Willis can do only so much. The example Price sets makes his job easier.
“Even veteran guys who are established and have their own routines that work, when you see one of your peers go about their work in a certain fashion, that motivates you more,” Willis said. “When you have veteran leadership, that goes so much further than what any coach can get across.”
In a special place
Price has made nearly 30 trips to Boston as an opponent over the years, and he knows the city well enough to navigate a Hubway bike from Copley Square to Fenway Park. He sought no advice before signing with the Sox.
“I know it’s a challenging place to play,” he said. “The media, the fan base, a lot is expected. I feel like they expect the same thing the players do. That’s unique, and I wanted to be a part of that.
“I know how tough it can be. But I’ve also heard that winning here is like winning nowhere else. It’s hands-down the best.”
For all he has accomplished, Price has never won a championship. His high school teams were eliminated in the district playoffs, and Vanderbilt didn’t win its first NCAA title until 2014. The Rays got to the World Series in 2008 and lost in five games.
“Give me a World Series this year and I’ll give you all the personal accolades I have back,” said Price. “Scratch them off my résumé. You only go as far as the team goes, and I want to be out there with this team every step of the way.