SARASOTA, Fla. -- It was about 11 a.m. on Friday morning in the Mets' clubhouse, and among those on the bubble to make the team, word spread quickly that judgment day had arrived.
Scott Rice had spent 14 years in professional baseball, and not a single one of those days had come in the big leagues. But the lefthanded reliever learned something important during all those seasons in the minors. No amount of anxiety or worry could ever sway his fate.
"I was in the exact same spot last year with the Dodgers," said Rice, who made it to the final day a year ago, only to get cut. "I've been through this before."
So as the younger hopefuls paced the hallways, Rice picked through his locker in search of a crossword puzzle. Nevertheless, word trickled in, and by the afternoon the rumor had made the rounds. But not until he heard it from manager Terry Collins could Rice believe that his wait finally was over.
"It's surreal," said Rice, who beat the odds to make the Mets' Opening Day roster. "It's something I feel has been a long time coming."
Rice, 31, had been through the wringer so much that he began to question whether he had been stigmatized. He wondered if his blank big-league resume had doomed him to a life in the minors. He considered the thought up until the moment he was summoned into Collins' office.
"He was very excited," Collins said Saturday. "We told him, 'You made the club.' He said, 'Finally, after all these years.' It was certainly worth all the work and effort. That's what you like to see."
Timing has rarely been an ally for Rice. Once, early in his career, he missed an opportunity when he slammed his finger in a car door in a freak accident the night before a planned promotion. And last year with the Dodgers, his fate was determined by his lack of a spot on the 40-man roster.
With the Mets, Rice again faced long odds. Not only did he not have a spot on the roster, but he would be thrust into a stiff competition for the one open slot remaining in the bullpen. By the end of camp, Rice emerged as a ground-ball machine, posting a 2.92 ERA in 11 appearances. That proved good enough to beat out fellow lefthanders Robert Carson and veteran Pedro Feliciano.
"I've put in a lot of hard work," said Rice, whose journey began in 1999 when the Orioles drafted him 44th overall as a tall, unpolished, 17-year-old out of high school in Southern California. He was chosen with the pick awarded the Orioles as compensation for losing Rafael Palmeiro.
When he walked into the clubhouse back then, just down the street from where the Mets played the Orioles yesterday, Rice remembered being the only player with a cellphone. In the days before the iPod, one of Rice's first purchases as a professional ballplayer was a portable radio, a necessity for long road trips on the bus. He roomed with former Mets pitcher John Maine while both were Orioles farmhands.
Back then, veterans mercilessly hazed impressionable rookies. And many of them experienced peer pressure of another kind.
"People were talking about steroids," said Rice, who described a culture of use. "It was open when I first signed. Guys were rehabbing going, 'Look, if you want to get to the big leagues, you've got to do steroids. Everybody else is doing it. You've got to do them.' I never did."
Rice pitched in outposts such as Sarasota, Bluefield, Aberdeen, Delmarva, Frederick, Bowie, Ottawa, Clinton, Frisco, Phoenix, San Antonio, Tulsa, Colorado Springs, Chattanooga and Albuquerque. Three times, he wound up in independent ball with Newark, York and the Long Island Ducks in 2008, when he pitched seven games despite an elbow injury that eventually required surgery.
Desperate to escape the independent circuit, Rice spent his off days cold-calling minor-league farm directors from big- league organizations. He started first with the teams that had the fewest lefthanders in the system. Over time, he learned he got more callbacks from assistant directors.
But during the winter, while Rice played in the Dominican Republic, it was the Mets who came calling. Collins personally reached out to the veteran, assuring him that he would have a real chance to compete for the job he eventually won.
On Friday night, during the long bus ride from Port St. Lucie to Sarasota, Rice's teammates congratulated him for finally breaking through.
"I didn't realize he spent all that time with never a call-up to the majors," Mets captain David Wright said. "What a great story."
In the 1999 draft, Rice was the sixth of the Orioles' seven top 50 selections that year. It was a group that included Larry Bigbie, whose name one day would appear prominently in the Mitchell Report. Of the seven, only Bigbie and current Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts ever reached the big leagues.
Until now. On Opening Day at Citi Field Monday, Rice will become the third.
"It's kind of funny," Rice said Saturday in Sarasota. "Full circle. I flew into Sarasota to start my career in the minor leagues. Now I'm flying out of Sarasota to go to the big leagues . . . 14 years later."
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