David Price vows to prove his playoff mettle
NASHVILLE — David Price frowned when he looked over the lunch menu at The Southern, his favorite restaurant in this vibrant city. A chicken dish he had been raving about seconds before was not listed.
A quick negotiation with the waiter fixed that. Price was assured the chef would be happy to put something together.
“You sure it’s all right?” the Red Sox lefthander asked.
No problem. It’s like that across town at Vanderbilt University, too. Price has full access to the facilities at his alma mater and last week had several throwing sessions with Sonny Gray, his close friend and fellow major league pitcher, on the indoor football field.
As Price and Gray fired a ball back and forth, six members of the women’s track team ran laps and a lone pole vaulter practiced his technique. Two former All-Stars were left alone as they got their work in.
“Everybody loves David here,” Gray said. “It’s such a comfortable environment for him.”
Price fervently believes Boston will soon feel about him the same way his hometown does. An uneven first season with the Red Sox that included a poor performance in the playoffs subjected Price to what has been withering criticism from fans.
There’s a perception that Price doesn’t have the personality to handle the must-win environment in Boston, or that the $217 million contract he signed as a free agent carries with it too heavy a burden.
It certainly looked that way during many of his starts last season. Price was morose even after he pitched well.
“Last year was the first time in my career I didn’t have fun when I was on the field,” Price said. “When I’m pitching well, I’m smiling. There wasn’t a lot of smiling.”
But Price is so convinced he can succeed in Boston that he unconditionally promised to remain with the Sox for the remaining six years of his contract and not exercise an opt-out clause after the 2018 season.
Not convinced? He plans to win you over.
“I’m staying right here,” Price said. “There was a reason I signed here and there’s a reason I’ll stay for six more years. I came here to win, and we’re going to win. If I go out there and pitch well, they’ll support me.
“I’m not trying to prove anybody wrong. I want to prove myself right. I know I can handle Boston. I know I can be successful in Boston. I’ve been successful my entire career. Going to Boston ain’t going to change that.”
Price started 35 games last season, the most for a Red Sox pitcher in 23 years, and led the majors with 230 innings. He also won 17 games.
But Price allowed four or more earned runs 10 times and gave up a career-worst 30 home runs. His earned run average of 3.99 was a whopping 1.54 runs more than 2015.
“I didn’t command my fastball. Whenever I’m going well, it doesn’t matter where you put your glove, I hit it. If I missed, it was by an inch or two. It wasn’t by 6 inches,” Price said. “I was over the plate too much. When hitters can sit on mistakes, that makes it tough.”
By the middle of the season, Price said, some fans at Fenway Park heaped abuse on him when he warmed up in the bullpen before starts.
“It got pretty rough,” he said. “If you don’t like it, pitch better. That’s all it is. Mike Brenly, our bullpen catcher, he stood up for me multiple times. The Fenway guards, too, [and] the bullpen cop.”
Some of the taunts were racial in nature.
“I got it all,” Price said. “It’s all right. I don’t care about that. My mom is white and my dad is black. I’ve heard that since I’ve been in school. There’s nothing you can say to me that I haven’t heard before. Your ignorance is not going to affect what I’m trying to do. But I feel sad it’s still out there.”
The playoffs offered a chance at redemption that was wasted. Price lasted only three innings against Cleveland in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, allowing five runs in a 6-0 loss.
After the Red Sox were swept, the focus fell on Price’s 0-8 record and 5.74 ERA as a playoff starter.
“I can’t make excuses. I need to go out there and dominate and not leave it in anybody else’s hands,” he said. “I know I’m 0-8 and I know it has to change. I’ll get asked about it all year. But I can’t do anything about it until October.”
Price dismissed the popular notion that his record-setting contract caused him stress. The money, he said, was a byproduct of his earlier success with Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Toronto.
For Price, the money is hard to even consider, given the outlandishness of it. He still dresses in sweats and sneakers every day, as he did in college. In November, Price donated $2.5 million to Vanderbilt to improve its baseball facilities.
“If I didn’t sign another contract in baseball ever, I would have been OK. That wouldn’t change my lifestyle one bit,” Price said. “I was already going to die with more than I could ever spend. Money has never driven me, not in my entire life.”
Gray believes Price was attracted more to the challenge of proving he could hold up to the expectations and scrutiny that come with playing for the Red Sox.
He has known Price for 10 years and watched him flourish after two midseason trades when the pressure was at its highest.
“He’s a competitive guy, and as his friend it can get frustrating at times. He wants to win at everything on a daily basis,” Gray said. “I’ve never seen anybody as successful when he challenges himself as David. That’s how he’s geared. I don’t have any doubt Boston will see that.”
For the 31-year-old Price, the offseason has been a memorable one. He married his longtime girlfriend, Tiffany, in Hawaii. They are expecting their first child in May, a boy.
The plan is for Xavier Price to be born in Boston.
“This is all something I’ve wanted for a long time,” Price said. “Since my junior year of college, I told my mom I wanted to be a father. She told me I should wait and get my life going in the right direction and settled in.
“I’m more grown up now. I don’t know if anybody is ever ready for your first child. But I’m as close as I’m going to be. Everybody always jokes with Tiff that she’ll have two children now.”
Price purchased a home in Chestnut Hill midway through last season and has set out to discover the parts of Boston he saw only small snatches of as visiting player.
“We love the city,” Price said. “We love our doctor and can’t wait for our son to be born in Boston.
“I want to be involved in the community. I want to do things people get excited about. I want to be viewed as a person. I understand I’m a baseball player, but I’m no different than anybody else.”
Price’s charitable foundation recently completed a $300,000 Miracle League field in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The facility will allow children with mental and physical disabilities to play baseball. It’s the kind of project he hopes to bring to Boston.
“Hopefully we can help as many people as we can,” he said.
Price plans to arrive at the Red Sox spring training facility early to pick up the pace of his workouts. He’ll return home from time to time before official workouts start on Feb. 14, but Price’s focus is turning ever more steadily to what he believes will be a season of salvation.
“I let people down last year and that was the biggest thing. When you go to a different team, you want to earn the respect of your teammates. You want to go out there and establish yourself for your teammates and your new fan base, absolutely. I don’t feel like that ever happened,” Price said.
“I feel like support is kind of like respect. It’s earned and I didn’t earn that last year. Now I will. I have to.”