COMSTOCK PARK - Raph Rhymes remembers the first meeting of the Louisiana State University baseball season held in early fall breaking up and players milling around, contemplating their next move.
Rhymes, an intense senior outfielder from Monroe, LA., found himself talking shop with one of the team's new pitchers, a tall, laid-back California-type and a bit of a baseball nomad who was playing ball at his fifth college, Will LaMarche.
On the surface it may have seemed that two youngsters thrown together from opposite ends of the country might have little in common except a deep passion for baseball. But not surprising with youth athletes who have time on their hands, the talk turned quickly to food. The two readily agreed on their next move: lunch at Hooters.
That was three years ago and Rhymes and LaMarche are no longer at LSU, but they still hang out as West Michigan Whitecaps teammates. Since that first lunch together at Hooters, the two have gone through much together, including a season at one of the country's premier Division 1 baseball programs, navigating the uncertainty of the Major League draft, briefly rooming together for 24 hours in Lakeland, Fla., comparing notes during their first professional season together a year ago in Connecticut and now another season together in West Michigan.
After sharing those experiences, Rhymes and LaMarche feel like they know each other well. Both as baseball players as well as friends, who spend time together off the diamond.
"I think I know him well as a person and he's the same now as he was in college. I know the kind of player he is. He needs to be pumped up when he pitches, he needs the adrenalin to be high," Rhymes said.
LaMarche, meanwhile, said the opposite is true of Rhymes, who plays the game hard. All the time. No exceptions.
"I feel the same way about him now I did that day at Hooters," LaMarche said. "He has only one mode. Since that first day, that's how you would describe him."
While the pair have known each other for three years, it was a long shot they would wind up together in the pros. LaMarche and Rhymes often talked at LSU of what professional baseball might bring, but both thought they would be going their separate ways after college.
"We both knew we wanted to be pros," Rhymes said. "You just want to hear your name has been called."
While Rhymes and LaMarche knew they were going to be taken in the three-day draft, neither had much insight into which teams were interested. LaMarche found out first when LSU coaches pulled him out of a training room prior to the team's NCAA Super Regional game in Oklahoma to tell him that Detroit has taken him in the ninth round. The next day, Rhymes was informed at practice that the Tigers had taken him with their 15th pick.
"The first thing I thought was that the Tigers had taken Will, too," Rhymes said.
Said LaMarche, "I went up to him and said, 'What up, teammate. We get to continue our careers together.'"
After signing, the two were sent to the Tigers' training complex in Lakeland, where Rhymes and LaMarche were roommates for 24 hours. Rhymes was sent to short-season Connecticut, which had an immediate need for an outfielder. He batted .250 in his first 26 pro games there, then was brought to West Michigan, where he proceeded to hit a healthy .345 in 119 at-bats to close out the season.
LaMarche was originally sent for two games to the Gulf Coast League Tigers, then two weeks later joined Rhymes in Connecticut, where he opened eyes with a 2.04 ERA in 15 games.
In Spring Training this season, the Tigers had basically four options with LaMarche and Rhymes. One was that either could be released, but since both had played well in their initial seasons, both knew that wasn't likely. The Tigers could have sent either back to Connecticut or perhaps even to Lakeland. Just two days before the end of Spring Training, the Tigers made a final decision: Rhymes and LaMarche would be together for a third straight season, this time in Grand Rapids.
"The options are anything. It's up in the air because clubs want to find the best fit for you," LaMarche said. "Until you've got that plane ticket, you don't know where you're going."
Because of the uncertain nature of professional baseball, neither Rhymes or LaMarche can predict the next step. Both could wind up next season at Double-A Erie, either could be released, traded or return to Grand Rapids. Both are, however, off to credible starts with the Whitecaps. Rhymes is batting .298, leads the team with seven extra base hits and has driven in nine runs (through April 27). LaMarche has a 2.61 ERA in his first seven games.
No one, however, can predict a fourth straight summer together.
"That would be the best situation, best scenario," Rhymes said of climbing through the Tigers' minor league system together. "It would be something we'd like to do all the way to Detroit. That'd be the best thing. But who knows?"