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Thursday, Oct 02, 2014

Rays catcher Albernaz continues to chase big-league dream

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PORT CHARLOTTE -

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon envisions a scenario where his players file into his office one by one, leave their jerseys on his desk, saying as they do, “I want Albie to dress in my place.”

Albie is Craig Albernaz, a career minor-league catcher who does what is needed in the organization. Move up to Triple A. Move down to Double A. Pitch an inning or two during a blowout loss. Come to spring training to help catch the pitchers.

Albernaz has done all of that since joining the organization in 2006 as a non-drafted free agent.

“I knew what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I was signed as an undrafted free agent. I was basically signed to catch bullpens during minor-league camp. When I first signed, I ended up taking advantage of a lot of playing opportunities. I played really well and I’m still around.”

At 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, the native of Fall River, Mass., and graduate of Eckerd College is one of the most popular players in camp. In fact, Albernaz is still in camp, catching the late innings of the remaining spring training games and getting the occasional at-bat.

He will be the last player cut after Saturday’s exhibition game at Tropicana Field with the Detroit Tigers. Then Albernaz will return to the minor leagues for another season of professional baseball.

Maddon compares him to former Notre Dame football player Rudy Ruettiger, made famous in the movie “Rudy.” Maddon lifted the “I want Albie to dress in my place,” scene from “Rudy,” and said he can hear his players in the clubhouse chanting, “Albie, Albie, Albie.”

“He’s a part of the fabric right now,” Maddon said.

This is Albernaz’s fifth big-league camp with the Rays. He recorded his first hit in a Grapefruit League game this spring. He spends most of his time catching bullpen sessions and picking brains. It is his goal to someday be a coach or manager.

“I’m a player first, right now,” he said. “If opportunity presents itself, if the Rays offered me a job or brought that up, I would absolutely give it serious consideration.”

Maddon said he sees coaching in Albernaz’s future.

“He pays attention,” Maddon said. “He has a great understanding of the field. He never complains. He does a great job with us, and we appreciate it.”

And yet the 30-year-old organization man with a .201 career batting average and 41.1 percent rate of throwing out base stealers won’t give up his Rudy dream, the one where he doesn’t get cut during spring training, the one where the plane ticket to join the Rays sometime during the season is for him.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I work my tail off day in, day out as a player, I’m in the cage every day getting my work in, because as a player that’s what I am, that’s what I want to be. If it happens, it happens.”

On that subject, Maddon had this to offer: “I’ll tell you what, on any given day he’s good enough to catch in the big leagues. He actually can receive and throw in the big leagues, there’s no doubt in my mind. If you threw him out there, he would not be intimidated nor would he embarrass.”

Given the Rays’ current catching situation and given the fact Albernaz excels on defense, one might wonder why he hasn’t been given a chance.

“Who knows,” Maddon said, “there might actually be another movie.”

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