PORT CHARLOTTE — He hit on an idea: propose marriage to his girlfriend, Kelly Reynolds, while they were in Discovery Cove at Sea World in Orlando. And it went perfectly. Rays pitcher Alex Cobb with his beloved, and up swims a dolphin with a buoy in its mouth, a message on the buoy.
Kelly, will you marry me?
Now, the other thing ...
“We knew Sea World was filming it,” Cobb said, “but I thought they were filming it just for us. A few days later, I pick up Kelly, she gets in the car and says, 'The video is everywhere.' I'm thinking, 'Oh, no.' We're kind of private people. But, hey, it's all good. They treated us great at Sea World. I'd just been used to flying under the radar.”
Those radar-free days are gone for the 26-year-old Cobb. There's no hiding anymore. It's his own fault. The right-hander was the Rays' best pitcher in 2013, 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA in a season interrupted for two months after he was skulled by a line drive, more headlines. Why, Cobb returned so messed up he came back better: 5-1, 2.41 ERA post-concussion and into the postseason, including six-plus innings of shutout ball and the wild-card win at Cleveland.
I'd have had no problem walking past David Price and handing Alex Cobb the baseball.
“He was so phenomenal for us last year,” Rays infielder Ben Zobrist said of Cobb. “I love the way, when things get tight out there, when things unravel a little bit, how he digs in. He's not trying to get away from anything. He wants it. He's a gamer.”
It's more than the fastball, the curve, the change. And even when some of those are missing, as they were in that playoff against the Indians, there's that bulldog head and heart — that game scowl.
“He only had a fastball and half an off-speed pitch that night,” Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. “He just never gave in.”
“I'm very proud of that game,” Cobb said.
His teammates say they love when Cobb is out there.
“And that gives me goose bumps,” Cobb said.
In November, his alma mater, Vero Beach High, retired his No. 12 baseball jersey at a football game. Cobb was the star quarterback and homecoming king, too.
And he's engaged.
And here's spring training.
“I'm getting paid a lot of money to come and play with my buddies,” Cobb said. “Who has it better than that?”
In May against San Diego, he struck out 13 hitters in less than five innings, a major-league record. He was a perfect 7-0 at home. Against playoff teams from 2012, he went 7-1 with a 1.57 ERA. The Rays won both of Cobb's postseason starts.
His season, and more, could have ended in June when that liner struck him near the right ear. Cobb's recovery reminded him of something.
“That I'm very lucky,” he said. “I've seen a lot of guys who gave everything they could to be in my position. It's something I find myself taking for granted once in a while, so I have to sit back and think about it. Nothing did that for me like getting hit.”
He didn't even blink when he was back on the mound. It didn't change anything inside his head.
Hickey said, “There were times he was dominant — dominant — arguably, at the end of the season, our best pitcher.”
There are too many teachers and lessons in Alex Cobb's life to make him take anything for granted for very long.
There's his father, Rick, who told him never to give an inch. There's his late mother, Lindsay (she died of a stroke when he was a high school senior), who taught him to fight through adversity. It was that way after the concussion.
“I thought of what she always said, 'Use it to your advantage,' ” Cobb said. “So I did. I rested up and I was ready for the playoff push.”
There's his brother, R.J., a commander in the 101st Airborne, who earned a Purple Heart in Iraq. Always he lends perspective.
“Growing up, if he ever saw me bragging or something, he'd be the first one to humble me, pretty quick,” Cobb said with a grin.
Now: Bring on the radar.
“I love to have that pressure put on me,” Cobb said. “I think it forces me to step my game up. It's an enjoyment of expectations.”
Pass the wedding bells. And the goose bumps.