ST. PETERSBURG - No one was supposed to throw a ball on the field at Busch Stadium during the pregame ceremonies before the 2009 All-Star game until President Obama threw out the first pitch. Nobody. And that order came from the top. So there was Scott Cursi, the Rays bullpen catcher in St. Louis that night because, as defending American League champions, all the Rays coaches and staff were at the All-Star game that year, standing in the outfield watching American League starting pitcher Roy "Doc" Halladay go through his pregame stretch routine.
Then Halladay picked up his glove, looked at Cursi and asked, "You ready?" The President had yet to toss out the first pitch, but what was Cursi to do? He didn't feel it was his place to tell Halladay they had to wait, remind the then Blue Jays ace of the order. Cursi flipped a baseball to Halladay. "Me and Doc playing catch and I'm thinking I'm going to lose my job," Cursi said. If anyone noticed the breach of protocol they didn't do anything to stop it because Cursi caught Halladay before the game and every American League pitcher who pitched that night. "Being at the All-Star game was definitely one of those times when you feel it's all worth it," Cursi said. The same can be said for that September evening in 2008 when third baseman Evan Longoria caught a foul pop up in front of the stands to clinch the Rays' first playoff berth. That was the only time Cursi ever joined a postgame on-field pileup. The Rays bullpen catcher since 1999, Cursi, 42, has been there for all of the memorable moments in team history and a lot of unforgettable ones, too. "He's the hardest working guy in baseball, and at the same time the nicest and has the greatest attitude every single day," Rays reliever Cesar Ramos said. Cursi catches all the bullpen sessions that Rays starting pitchers throw between starts. He plays long toss before games with some relievers. He warms up the relief pitchers during games. On some days, Cursi will throw a baseball more than 400 times. He's counted. He used to throw a daily round of batting practice but has scaled that back this season. "My fastball is now a changeup," he said. Cursi sat in front of his locker recently making the sheet he uses to keep score during the game. On his left hand, just above the thumb, was an ugly bruise. A few days later he applied a bandage on his left shin before heading out to catch a pregame bullpen session. "People have no understanding, truly, the kind of work Curs does every day," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "None of it has any kind of glory attached to it. It's hard work. Squatting down all day, his hand getting beat up by all these pitches, throwing batting practice, it's really a tough job." An Ohio native, Cursi was finishing his degree in physical education at UCF and working as an assistant baseball coach at Seminole Community College, where he had caught for two years, when he approached the Orlando Rays about a summer job catching bullpens and throwing batting practice. He got the job, and one thing led to another, and on Easter Sunday in 1999 Cursi found himself catching bullpens for the Devil Rays. That led to a part-time job catching homestands while he finished his degree. It became a full-time job later that season. Cursi has been a daily presence in the bullpen ever since, working with every pitcher to pass through Tropicana Field. "It's awesome to have him down there," Ramos said. "Sometimes it takes a while to get to the fifth and sixth innings, and he just keeps it light every day. Every day. He's hilarious. He has a very sharp wit. He's the silent assassin." Life has never been better in the Rays bullpen than it has these past few seasons. His bosses, pitching coach Jim Hickey and bullpen coach Stan Boroski, are great to work for, Cursi said. And the talent? Are you kidding? "Fernando Rodney may have had the best year of pitching in the history of baseball last year, and I warmed him up," Cursi said. "That's incredible." On Cursi's first day of work in 1999, Devil Rays closer Roberto Hernandez told the equipment manager to give Cursi a jersey with his name on the back and the number 77. Cursi doesn't wear his uniform often, just on Opening Day, Jackie Robinson Day when everyone wears No. 42, and the first game of the playoffs. Cursi prefers to wear his Rays windbreaker so as to remain anonymous and keep himself separated from the players and coaches. But Maddon made sure Cursi's jersey was packed when the team traveled to Durham at the end of spring training in 2010. Maddon wanted Cursi to catch the final inning of the exhibition game with the Triple-A Bulls. "It's a tireless job. Thankless job," Maddon said. "I wanted him to get out there so he could say, 'I caught in a professional baseball game.' " After years of taking pitches off his hands and shins and shoulders, years of crouching in bullpens across the major leagues, the bullpen catcher finally got to catch a big-league pitcher in a place other than a bullpen. "I was afraid runners would get on base because I know I couldn't throw anyone out," Cursi said. "No one did, thankfully. It was pretty awesome." firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO