How Troy Percival became the maitre d' of Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In the wild and crazy annals of Free-Agent Contracts You Never Saw Coming, where would you put this one:

A two-year, $8 million deal for a 38-year-old closer who hasn't saved a game in 2½ years.

Who didn't even throw a pitch -- not counting BP to a bunch of 8-year-olds in the Orangecrest Pony League -- for two years.

And whose life had spun so far out there into a whole different orbit, he actually tossed out the ceremonial first ball last Opening Day in Anaheim.

All of these amazing facts feed into one of the best stories in anybody's spring training camp: the totally true tale of Troy Eugene Percival, the new closer, clubhouse emperor and professor of positive thinking for the increasingly intriguing Tampa Bay Rays.

What is he doing here? How did he get here? How did he go from Pony League coach and first-pitch delivery man to a guy who was in so much demand this winter, he was able to scribble his autograph onto a multiyear contract?

Fasten your seat belts. We're here to explain it to you.

But first, you need to understand that this isn't only a story about Troy Percival, the pitcher. This is just as much about Troy Percival, as unique a member of the human species as you'll ever run across in this life.

So he isn't wearing this uniform only because the bullpen he's joining had a 6.16 ERA last season -- the highest by any 'pen in the last half-century. He is also wearing this uniform because of his special ability to reach and inspire the human beings around him.

And how much did this downtrodden franchise need someone like that?

"Ohhhh," manager Joe Maddon muses, "like oxygen, maybe?"

Right. But before we get to the local oxygen bartender, let's roll the clock back to last Opening Day, when Percival's old team, the Angels, also was looking for an inspiring figure -- but for a different reason.

Somebody has to lob that photo-op first pitch on Opening Day. So the Angels reached out to the man who had saved more games (316) than any pitcher in their history. Heck, they knew he was retired. He had to be. He'd just spent all of spring training working with their young pitchers as a coach.

But the guy they invited was beginning to have other ideas. Already.

"When they wanted me to throw out the first pitch, I was happy to do that," Percival says now. "But I said, 'Just so you know, I'm not too sure about this retirement thing.'"

The Angels wanted to go through with it anyway, however. So out marched Percival and tossed that first pitch. And waved to the cheering crowd. Even held a "retirement" press conference.

There was only one little problem:

"I wasn't sure that was going to be it for me," Percival says, "because I had just been through spring training as a coach. And I was throwing every day and going, 'Man, this feels pretty good.'"

At that point, it had been nearly 21 months since Percival had delivered the pitch that seemingly ended his career. In Tropicana Field, of all places.

Jonny Gomes bashed it about 950 feet, onto the top of the Batter's Eye Restaurant in center field. And as the baseball soared off in the direction of somebody's cheeseburger, Percival trudged off the mound with a torn muscle inside his elbow.

There was every reason to believe it was the last pitch he would ever throw.

Even he thought so -- until he arrived in spring training in 2007 to begin his coaching career, that is. And discovered that all those months of rest had apparently performed a certifiable recuperative miracle.

From there, the story gets officially nutty. … Kept throwing to his son Cole's Pony League team in Riverside, Calif. … Noticed his elbow was feeling better and better. … Called his agent, Paul Cohen. … Auditioned for a bunch of teams in late May. … Got signed by the Cardinals in June. … Wound up pitching 40 innings in half a season -- and, incredibly, led the team in ERA (1.80) and opponent batting average (.171).

Huh? Did that really happen?

"I pitched every inning last year, first through ninth," Percival says. "So I threw a complete game -- over the whole season. … Heaviest workload I've ever had in my career, and I came out of it fine. Had that not happened, had I gone in there and gotten like 25, 30 innings, I probably wouldn't have gotten many looks."

Instead, there was as much buzz about Percival during the winter as there was about any relief pitcher on the market. And why not? Among relievers who worked 40 innings or more last season, the only ones who allowed fewer baserunners per nine innings than Percival were J.J. Putz, Rafael Betancourt, Takashi Saito and Jonathan Papelbon.

And so, just seven months after his retirement press conference, Percival found himself with nine teams chasing him. He could have headed for Cleveland, the Bronx, Philly or Boston. But naturally, he chose a team that still has never won more than 70 games in a season -- those up-and-coming Don't Call Us The Devil Rays.

Why the Rays? Because they needed him. That's why. They needed him to close, which those other clubs didn't. And they needed him for something even more important: to be him.

Put a guy like this in a clubhouse with a bunch of other 30-somethings, "and I'd just blend in," Percival says. But put him on the third-youngest team in baseball -- where he can put on a daily "how to act like a real major leaguer" clinic -- "and this is my idea of fun," Percival says, "[because] spring is what I do."

To watch Percival do his thing on a typical spring training morning is a show in itself. We would say he works the room, but heck, why limit him?

"He works the entire area code," Maddon quips. "He shows up in the morning, and he's all over the room. He'll make a visit to the coaches' room. He'll come see me -- every day. He's kind of like the maitre d' of the clubhouse."

Not everyone can pull that maitre d' act off in this setting, you know. So what is it about this man that allows him to own every room he occupies?

"Hey, it's not that hard," laughs Brian Anderson, a former teammate in Anaheim who had been working on his own comeback miracle in Tampa Bay before blowing out his elbow again this week. "If your voice goes an octave or two higher than everybody else, and you've got some service time, and you've pitched in a World Series, and you're 38 years old, and you look like you wrestle bears in the offseason, then yeah. You're going to be a voice that's heard."

But that's not it, either, of course. Percival just has that singular combination of wit, wisdom, empathy, needlework and experience to pull this off. He's part Dr. Phil, part Stephen Colbert, part Jim Varney in "Ernest Goes to Camp." And already, after only four weeks in Rays-ville, this is clearly his clubhouse.

A prime example: Maddon purposely assigned Percival to the same workout group as last June's No. 1 draft pick, David Price. So Percival promptly appointed Price to a very prestigious position.

"I told him his job is just to tell me where I'm supposed to be all day, because I'm not looking at the sheet." Percival says. "So I'm like, 'All right, where do I go? Field 2? All right.'"

Fortunately, Price accepted this stellar assignment like the awesome responsibility it clearly was.

"You know, he hasn't been around very long in the game of baseball," Price deadpans. "So he needed me, with no experience, to tell him where to go."

But there was also a method to this madness, naturally. Because Price was required to report to Percival six times a day, it broke down what could have been an impenetrable barrier between the most experienced pitcher on the roster and the least experienced. So Price wound up with a whole different experience in his first big league camp because of it.

"I can talk to him about anything," Price says. "He shows me respect, and I'm 22 years old. So I definitely appreciate that. There are a lot of guys his age, who played in the major leagues as long as he has, who would look at me and say, 'What's he doing in big league camp? What's he done?' But he hasn't been one of those guys. Very nice. Very respectful. Just a real good role model."

Price showed his appreciation the day he was assigned to tell the Rays' Joke of the Day, by making Percival the butt of a joke we can't repeat here. Percival then returned the favor, by pasting a giant photo decal of himself onto Price's BMW as a hood ornament, after Price struck out the side in the first spring training outing of his career.

At another point this spring, Percival read a story in the newspaper comparing the Rays' three upwardly mobile young starting pitchers -- Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza -- to John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery at the same stage. By the next day, Percival was walking around in a T-shirt that had all six of those names on it -- just to remind his guys they're "not quite there yet."

But no matter how many laughs he leaves in his wake, Percival is on a mission bigger than comic relief.

"I'm just here to try to be myself and keep things light, but also to make guys understand we're here for a purpose," he says. "And it's not to be the whipping stick of the league.

"We're here to win, and that's why you play the game. You don't play this game so you can build stats and get paid. I don't look at it that way. … I don't care how much money you made. It's about going out as a team and winning. I was with a team [the 2002 Angels] that wasn't even close to one of the most talented teams in the league. But we were the best team in the game because we had 25 guys every day for one purpose."

For this team to get to where those Angels got, a whole lot of things have to happen. And they won't all happen this season. But for the Rays to even get close to .500, one of the most important things they'll need is for their new closer -- who has ripped off three straight 1-2-3 innings this spring -- to save 30 games for the first time since 2004.

There's precedent for that, by the way. Seven other closers in history have gone four years between 30-save seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. But of those seven, only Todd Worrell ever did what Percival is attempting to do: come back to save 30 after being out of baseball for two years.

Considering that Percival never had elbow surgery after that fateful pitch to Jonny Gomes in July 2005, you have to wonder if he still has two seasons worth of bullets left in that 38-year-old arm.

Then again, says Maddon, "Maybe having sat out a year and a half, who knows how much that revitalized him, and how many more bullets that put back in?"

Only time will answer that question. But for now, Professor Percival has a class to teach -- in winning.

"I'm a guy who's sitting here with a contract where a lot of guys are saying, 'I don't get why that's happening right now,'" he admits, readily. "But that's what comes with getting along with people, with knowing how to win and portraying to other people how to win."

The maitre d' of Tampa Bay doesn't take reservations, doesn't set tables, doesn't even cater to VIPs. But he keeps his customers coming back for more, with smiles on their faces. And every day, he writes another act in the best script in baseball.

"I don't feel like a maitre d'," Percival says. "I just feel like me."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.