As the Durham Bulls wait their turn in the batting cage at BB&T BallPark on Tuesday, they see Charlotte Knights pitcher Brad Penny and call to him.
Why wouldn’t they? If the Bulls don’t know Penny, they’ll pretend they do.
Penny, 37, made his major league debut 15 years ago. When his Florida Marlins beat the favored New York Yankees in the 2003 World Series, he won two games and compiled a 2.19 ERA. He twice made the All-Star team. In 2007, he finished third in Cy Young Award voting. He won 121 games in his career against 101 losses. Last season, he pitched 26 innings for the Marlins.
Imposing at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Penny extends a big hand and waves off the Bulls. They yell, implore, and try to get him to come over.
“I’m pitching (Wednesday),” Penny says and walks away.
Penny has been with the Knights since spring training. He missed three starts with a hamstring problem and tendinitis. But he’s good.
He pitched six innings against the Bulls on Wednesday and gave up two earned runs and struck out seven in a no-decision for him. The Knights lost 5-2.
During his previous start July 3, he pitched the first complete game at BB&T BallPark, leading the Knights to an 11-2 victory against Gwinnett. The Knights’ bullpen was depleted and they desperately needed innings from their starter. He provided them.
Penny’s work on Father’s Day also was impressive. He signed an autograph the previous night for a young man named Kobe. The Knights have a Father’s Day promotion, and Kobe told Penny he wanted to be part of it but didn’t have a dad. Be sure to come to the game, Penny told him.
The Knights invite dads and kids onto the field to play catch before the game. Penny invited Kobe.
“We love to do something like that,” Penny says. “He’s a good kid, too, so it wasn’t a problem to go out and play catch with him and see how excited he was.”
It’s an old story, the baseball veteran making one more run. Yet it remains a good story, especially when the veteran is Penny.
“Everybody knows his accomplishments and what he’s done, but he doesn’t act like he’s (special),” says Charlotte catcher Kevan Smith. “We had a conversation in the outfield and he said, ‘There’s nothing stronger than the bond you create with the team, and how you have each other’s back.’
“That’s kind of awesome to hear a guy like that say it,” says Smith, 28. “You think as you move through the system and get to the big leagues that it’s individual and guys are on their own paths. You see a guy who has as much success as he has focus on the team aspect and how that’s so critical to winning and being successful, and that’s what got him here.”
I ask Penny what he can do for the younger players.
“The same thing they can do for me,” he says.
Players that aren’t in the game see things that players in the game don’t, whether they’re 37 or 28 or 23.
“We talk about situations,” says Penny who sits in the dugout before Tuesday’s game. “Smitty (Smith) asks a lot of questions because he’s going to be in the big leagues. He needs to know how to get ‘em out. He needs to be on the same page. Why are we throwing pitches on certain counts? What are they thinking? I’ve got to do the opposite. I’ve got to make my strength their weakness. You just talk about the game of baseball.”
Penny has played 14 seasons for six major league teams, two of them – San Francisco and the Marlins – twice.
Will you get a 15th?
“We’ll see,” Penny says. “If I pitch good, I’ll pitch somewhere. It might not be with the (Knights’ parent club) White Sox. Once I get the innings under my belt, I think my velocity will creep back up there. If I was healthy the whole time, I think I would have.”
He says he still enjoys going the ballpark, especially this one. As offices go, his is better than yours. Family sees him. Friends see him. And every five days, he gets to pitch.
“The All-Star games were nice, but the highlight of my career was the World Series,” Penny says. “If I’m going to play here in Triple-A, I want to win a championship in Triple-A. I’ve had a great career and been really fortunate, and hopefully it’s not over. And I’m going to keep going as long as I feel that way.”
If you weren’t scheduled to pitch Wednesday, would you have walked over and talked to your buddies from Durham?
“I don’t have buddies over there,” Penny says. “They’re hitters.”
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tomsorensen