After 13 weeks, we’ve come to the end of our Shorebirds Silver Anniversary Team unveiling. For this final homage to the best-of-the-best to ever don the orange and black, we turn it over to our left-handed relief pitcher. Balloting for this position resembled that of its right-handed counterpart, with a larger pool whittled down to finalists from which our expert panel made their selection.
Often called specialists, left-handed relievers are expected to shepherd their teams out of the tightest spots. The difference between having a crack lefty in your bullpen, either to sit down that hulking slugger or buckle some knees with the bases loaded, can be the difference between a winning season and a losing season. It takes a unique kind of spirit to handle that role, and our panel’s choice is as spirited as anyone who’s ever played at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium. He used his breakout success in Delmarva as fuel to embark on one of the longest minor league odysseys in recent memory. His is a story of persistence that gives new meaning to title “journeyman.”
Left-Handed Relief Pitcher: Scott Rice, 2002-03
2003: 32 G, 4-1, 0.94 ERA, 5 SV, 47.2 IP, 12 BB, 53 K, 0.692 WHIP, 10.0 K/9
By 2003, Scott Rice was on his last legs. Once a promising prospect, the 1999 first-rounder had failed to gain traction as a starting pitcher over his first four pro seasons. The Orioles moved him to a relief role upon his promotion to Delmarva in mid-2002, but the growing pains were palpable; he went 0-6 with a 5.40 ERA in that first abbreviated stint with the Shorebirds. Still only 21 years old when he arrived in Salisbury the following spring, Rice knew it was far past time to put up or shut up. He chose to put up.
“I think being in Delmarva the year before, coming back and having that familiarity allowed me to go out there and understand the league,” said Rice over the phone from his home in Simi Valley, California. “Being in Low-A is your first time playing in front of big crowds, for the most part, so I think that I was able to get beyond that part and focus on the craft.”
That attention to the craft, aided by the steady hand of pitching coach Larry McCall, allowed Rice to truly flourish for the first time. He was positively unhittable in early 2003, earning a bid to the South Atlantic League All-Star Game in Lexington and resolving countless jams for a Shorebird team that went 36-32 in the first half and just missed out on a playoff berth. By midseason it was clear Rice nothing left to prove in Delmarva; he finished that year with solid numbers in High-A Frederick and broke camp the next spring with Double-A Bowie.
“When I think of my time in the minor leagues, Delmarva is the first place I think of,” said Rice, who cites his time in a Shorebird uniform as among his best baseball memories. “The fans were just incredible, they really were. I feel like the city embraced the team, and I feel like it was centralized around the town. You’re kind of out there on the Peninsula, and there isn’t easy access to get to other areas. …[I remember Salisbury as] just a small town that loved their baseball team.”
High praise from Rice, whose familiarity with those small towns mirrors that of a grizzled scout more than a player. Over the first 14 years of his professional career, Rice played for 19 different minor league clubs. He reached as high as Triple-A Ottawa with the Orioles before his release in 2006; soon after he dealt with flexor tendon issues that cost him most of 2007 and 2008. Eventually Rice signed up as a farmhand for teams in the Rangers, Padres, Rockies, and Dodgers systems, plus spells with three separate independent franchises.
Even the toughest of minor league stock would be tempted to give it up after a decade and a half without a call to The Show. For Rice, though, that shining Delmarva spring of 2003 had convinced him beyond a shadow of a doubt that the call was coming.
“I knew I could pitch in the major leagues,” said Rice. “I wasn’t sure, but I think that the season I had in Delmarva spring boarded that belief. Doing that, finding a niche, understanding that ‘this is a role I can thrive in,’ and building off of that – I hadn’t been taking huge leaps, but in Delmarva I took a huge leap.
“For me it was opportunity, not ability. A lot of people have said to me, ‘as long as you have a uniform on, you have a chance.’ And that really struck home with me, to say, ‘look, I have the ability, that’s why I keep putting the uniform on my back.’ With time, with perseverance, I knew in my heart that I was going to force somebody’s hand.”
And force a few hands he did. Rice began the 2011 season with the York Revolution in the Atlantic League, universally recognized as the nation’s top independent circuit. After a strong couple months in York, the Dodgers picked him up and sent him to Double-A Chattanooga, where he dominated for the rest of the summer. In 2012 Rice received an invite to major league spring training but ultimately spent the year in Triple-A Albuquerque, where he put up more-than-respectable numbers in the hitter-heavy Pacific Coast League.
That offseason Rice signed with the New York Mets, headed to the Dominican Winter League for a quick tune-up, and earned another invite to spring training. This time, in his 15th pro season, the call finally came. Rice, then 31, broke camp with the big club and made his long-awaited major league debut at Citi Field on Opening Day itself, striking out his first two batters as part of a perfect ninth to finish off the Mets’ 11-2 win over San Diego.
“It was a huge monkey off my back,” said Rice. “I think it was one of those things where you think that everything’s going to be different when you make it to the major leagues, and it is true, but by the same token it was business as usual for me. …I couldn’t really let it soak in too much because I had to face some of the best hitters in the world. So for me it was staying focused and understanding that after the season I’d have little moments where I’d get to absorb it.”
After nearly 500 appearances in the minors, Rice more than made up for lost time in the majors. He appeared in 73 games in 2013, good for 12th in the National League, going 4-5 with a 3.71 ERA. He made the Mets’ Opening Day roster again in 2014, pitching in 32 more games through June 8; he finished that month in Triple-A Las Vegas before missing the rest of the season after having a bone spur removed from his elbow.
Rice signed another minor league deal with the Mets in 2015 and cruised through the PCL but never made it back to New York. The next spring he opened up with the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A club in Reno but was released midseason, closing the year back in the familiar haunt of independent York. (Your author was a broadcaster for the Revs that season and became a fan of Rice, who was front-and-center for numerous behind-the-scenes hijinks.)
Although he was 35 by the end of 2016, Rice seemingly still had fuel left in the tank for one more big league push. But that offseason was different: his wife LaDawn gave birth to a son named Adam the year before, and sweating it out in one more minor league town didn’t seem that important.
“I saw a lot of guys, they had their kids, they were traveling on the road, and they weren’t sure [where] they were going to play,” said Rice. “I didn’t want that life. I felt that I had reached all my dreams and goals. I could have tried to grind it out for a couple more years…but I wouldn’t have had the stabilization I was looking for. So I decided that I’d rather go out on my own and be happy with those terms…and to be there for my kids.”
So Rice’s baseball odyssey finally came to port after 18 professional seasons. In that time he donned 23 different uniforms in the majors, minors, independent leagues, and foreign ball, pitching in a total of 701 games. He moved back home to Southern California and became a realtor; today he works for Dilbeck Real Estate and cares for sons Adam and Maddox.
It’s a life far more stable than the one he spent half his life living, and it brings him deeper appreciation for the nearly two decades he spent in the Delmarvas of the world.
“Playing baseball for as long as I did, I didn’t take it for granted at all,” said Rice. “I appreciated every single day that I played, especially with the journey that it took to get me where I am. When you’re surrounded by athletes all the time, you don’t realize how special it is. Being out in the real world, the way that people respond to me because of my background, my history, I understand how incredibly unique it was, and how incredibly lucky and fortunate I was to be able to do it for as long as I did.”
Best of the Rest
Scott Eibey (1997) – Part of the four-headed dragon during the Shorebirds’ first championship run, Eibey went 10-4 with seven saves and a remarkable 1.83 ERA over 47 relief appearances. He spent the next four years bouncing between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie but advanced no further, retiring at age 27 after the 2001 campaign.
Rommie Lewis (2002) – A teammate of Rice’s in 2002, Lewis registered 25 saves – fifth in franchise history – and mowed down Sally League batters to the tune of a 2.15 ERA, leading Delmarva to a second half division title. He topped out with the Orioles in Double-A Bowie but found success in the Toronto system, appearing in 20 major league games for the Blue Jays from 2010-11. Lewis then extended his career for five years in the Atlantic League, most notably with the York Revolution from 2013-15 where he became a colorful presence in both the rotation and bullpen. He retired in 2017 at age 34 after spending the year with the ALPB’s Lancaster Barnstormers.
Dave Haehnel (2005) – The former eighth-rounded shoved for Delmarva in an All-Star first half of 2005, nailing down 16 saves with a 0.79 ERA in 28 appearances before a midseason promotion to Frederick. Haehnel became a starter for the Keys the next season but struggled mightily; he returned to the bullpen with Bowie in 2007 but never recaptured his Shorebird magic. The O’s released him and he retired in 2008 after a cup of coffee in independent ball.
Zach Matson (2017, 2019) – Matson appeared in three games for the Shorebirds in 2017 but really made his mark on Delmarva two years later. Despite not cracking the Opening Day roster and debuting two weeks into the season, Matson made the South Atlantic All-Star Game, one of eight Shorebirds selected. In 17 outings he went 4-0 with a 2.55 ERA and four saves, putting up an eye-popping strikeout rate of 16.0 per nine innings. In a remarkable May 16 outing in Greensboro he retired 11 batters in a row to begin a four-inning save, striking out the side in two separate innings and totaling nine whiffs. Matson earned a promotion to High-A Frederick on June 24 and has become one of the many faces of the Orioles’ new strikeout-minded philosophy.
Delmarva Shorebirds Silver Anniversary Team
Catcher: Chance Sisco (2014)
First Base: Calvin Pickering (1997)
Second Base: Willie Harris (1999-2000)
Third Base: Ryan Minor (1997; mgr. 2010-12, 2014-17)
Shortstop: Orlando Cabrera (1996)
Left Field: Jason Fransz (2004-05)
Center Field: Zach Jarrett (2018)
Right Field: Nick Markakis (2004)
Designated Hitter: Manny Machado (2011)
Right-Handed Starting Pitcher: Grayson Rodriguez (2019)
Left-Handed Starting Pitcher: Alex Wells (2017)
Right-Handed Reliever: Ryan Kohlmeier (1997)
Left-Handed Reliever: Scott Rice (2002-03)
Full 25-Man Roster: April 9
The Delmarva Shorebirds Silver Anniversary Team was voted on by a panel of experts who have deep, longstanding ties to the Shorebirds organization. The panel considered several factors to make well-rounded decisions on who best represents the history of the Delmarva franchise as both a competitive team in its own right and as a step on the road to major league glory. Members of the panel include: Chris Bitters, Shorebirds general manager; Will DeBoer, Director of Broadcasting & Communications; Gil Dunn, Delmarva Shorebirds Fan Club president; Dr. Richard A. Passwater, a.k.a. “Doc Shorebird,” team historian; Ricky Pollitt, The Daily Times sportswriter; Bryan Records, longtime Shorebirds clubhouse assistant; Randy Scott, Froggy 99.9 FM radio personality and former Shorebirds broadcaster; and Jimmy Sweet, Shorebirds assistant general manager.