Cell phone in hand, Carlos Rodon is staring at the screen and smirking to himself while sitting in front of his locker at Camelback Ranch. In honor of his teammate Chris Sale's 26th birthday, a sports website has resurrected a YouTube video from a few years ago. It shows the staff ace pummeling the dugout bench and an unsuspecting Gatorade cooler between innings. An impressive display of frustration for Sale, who gave up eight earned runs in seven innings of work. An outburst that makes the equally competitive Rodon chuckle to himself.
For a moment, he considers making the 10-step trip across the clubhouse to Sale's locker and jokingly asking the pitcher if he recommends the meltdown technique. He decides against it. Sale might laugh, he considers. But he might not. And the whole encounter would likely go against Rodon's self-imposed Spring Training rules:
Head down. Mouth shut. Listen. Pitch.
This was his mentality all camp long. Don't ruffle feathers. Ask, never tell. No one wants to hear from the rookie, no matter how soon he might be joining the big league club. No matter how quickly he might be a face of the franchise. Rodon is, of course, the White Sox 2014 top draft pick, the third player selected overall. The expectations are great. But so is the scrutiny, even by some of those sharing this space.
So while he can't avoid the attention, Rodon can minimize his part in amplifying it. He can clasp his hands behind his back in an unassuming stance when the microphones and cameras surround his corner locker. He can answer every inquiry with a courteous and measured response, keeping his voice low. He can repeatedly lean on an us-versus-me mantra: "I'm just here to help the team any way I can."
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Brad Penny takes slow, deliberate strides as he crosses the White Sox clubhouse in Glendale. His locker is well enough away — a solid 35-step trip — from the likes of Sale and other starters John Danks and Jeff Samardzija. Tattoos peak out from under his shorn T-shirt sleeves, adding to his intimidating presence. Even if the two time All Star's pitching performances lately have been anything but.
It was early in camp when the 36-year old, in his umpteenth Spring Training stint, approached the new kid.
“Hey,” he simply said. “I’m Brad.”
It was as unnecessary an introduction as there ever was. And one that Deloreaned Rodon right back to his childhood in South Florida.
"Holy crap” the starstruck rookie gushed back, "you're Brad Penny. I watched you throw a hundred with the Marlins back in '03."
Rodon was just 10 years old during that playoff run, when the Marlins won their second World Series title.
“Yeah,” Penny laughed. "Shows how old I am, huh?”
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Then his eyes brighten as he begins to rave about the 22-year old.
"He's just a good kid. He's fun to be around, and he's competitive. You know, coming in, a lot of people love to hate the guy in that situation. He got paid a lot of money to do what he's doing, so he comes into a tough spot. I try to make it comfortable for those guys when they come into camp.”
"It's a little bit startling, right?," Rodon notes of the two quickly becoming inseparable. "He’s like a mentor for me, a big brother."
The fact is Penny was happy to offer his baseball insight and perspective to other White Sox players too. He’s at the point in his career where he's comfortable sharing the knowledge he's collected over the last two decades. But the relationship with Rodon evolved beyond the rest, likely because Penny sees a lot of his young self in the rookie.
“I like how he’s handled the hype. And his work ethic,” Penny says. "He’s more polished than I was though. I had the luxury of playing right away, but it also meant I learned on the job.”
And yet, he admits there were situations he could have handled differently. Penny was a fifth-round pick in 1996, drafted by the Diamondbacks. He made his first MLB start for the Marlins in April of 2000. He was 21 years old. Early on, with players like Randy Johnson in the Arizona clubhouse, he too kept his head down, his mouth shut. But eventually he'd earn the reputation of a wild child. Looking back, Penny knows navigating those roads with direction would have been easier than doing so blindly. Which is why conversations between Penny and Rodon extend beyond baseball.
"We talk pitching yeah, but we have a lot of other things in common," Rodon remarks. “I’m a bulldog, and he is too. It was good to have him, good to hear him talk. He's been through all this a few times."
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Penny hopes Rodon doesn’t have to experience all he’s been through on his baseball journey, but he wants him to continue using him as a resource. Down the road, maybe he’ll reveal how he dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness and eventually bounced back well enough to win another World Series ring. But for now, it’s mostly tips to ease the transition from the minors to the bigs. One lesson that stands out — a message about arm angles. Penny told Rodon to never miss an opportunity to perfect a more deceptive delivery.
“A big thing was pitching with angle every time you play catch. Even if you’re just playing easy toss, it’s important not to be nonchalant. It’s all about angle, get on top of the ball. Work on that every time you have the ball in your hand.”
He also encouraged Rodon to get his mind off the game whenever possible. For Penny, that often means taking his boat out on the water and enjoying the serenity of fishing. The two even dropped a few lines together when they both were reassigned to Charlotte near the end of camp.
Rodon is learning to enjoy that quiet kind of relaxation - mostly because it means spending more time with his childhood hero. But perhaps unsurprisingly, given his age, he would rather relax at home, watching funny internet videos - not unlike the Sale dugout meltdown - when he needs to mentally check out of baseball.
He was actually in the middle of a good laugh session, scrolling through YouTube videos when he got the call that he’d be joining the White Sox. Shortly after, he sent a text to Penny who already had a hunch it was happening.
“He had told me he was bummed because he wanted to visit his family in Raleigh (on the upcoming road trip) and drive his own car there. But the team told him he couldn’t. I figured it was 'cause they were calling him up. But I didn’t say anything.
"When he told me the news, I just said 'Congrats, man. You deserve it.’”
Penny continues, further reflecting on the kid 15 years his junior. His teammate. And friend. Now he's the one star struck.
"Every once and a while, a special arm comes along. He's gonna be good and he's going to be good for a long time. And I can’t wait to watch.”