KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Red Sox third base coach DeMarlo Hale remembers him as a right fielder in Single A, and as a pitcher in Double A and for the Texas Rangers.
"When I see that kid out there, it brings a smile to my face," said Hale.
Ron Mahay has that effect on people. His story is one of great perseverance, hard work, and an undying love of the game. He is a walking movie, a kid who risked everything when he became a replacement player for the Sox in 1995.
He was a tall, blond kid who couldn't hit very well but was impressive running down the ball and throwing. He could also run the bases. That part hasn't changed.
Sox vice president of player development Ben Cherington was on the phone in the dugout before Monday's game when he watched Mahay, now a lefthanded reliever for the Kansas City Royals, sprinting from foul pole to foul pole several times in 100-degree temperatures. Cherington was as impressed as could be.
Mahay (2-0 with a 2.20 ERA this season) has found a niche to the point where he was one of the most sought-after relievers at the trading deadline. The Sox made a bid, but it didn't work out.
"I heard about that," said Mahay. "That would have been quite a story, going back to the Red Sox where I started and where I learned to become a pitcher and all the other things I went through there.
"I signed a two-year deal here and I'd like to see it through. It's great here. I've had my best year and my family is comfortable here during the season.
"But looking back on those times with the Red Sox, that was quite a time in my life. I went through so many different emotions, not knowing what I was going to be or whether I was going to go home and never have a chance to play this game at the major league level. I'll never forget it.
"Everything I've experienced has made me stronger and made me appreciate what I have now. I don't take one day for granted."
He was a quiet kid then, speaking with a bit of a stutter that's improved greatly. He was reserved and kept to himself. He loved baseball, though, and had many debates in his own mind about whether being a replacement player was the right thing to do, knowing he might be forever scorned. He made the decision that he would try to make it.
"One of my video guys here has a video of me getting my first [major league hit] and first home run," said Mahay. "It was incredible to watch and see me in that Red Sox uniform. It brought me back.
"I just remembered how much I loved playing the outfield and hitting. I just wish I'd done it better. But I always knew I had a strong arm. I didn't know if I could make it as a pitcher, but I just wanted to try and see what I could do with it. I struggled, took my lumps, but I made it through."
Mahay was kept by the Sox for five games after the regular players returned from the work stoppage in '95. In a May 26 game against the Angels, top of the sixth, Mahay was the back end of back-to-back home runs with Reggie Jefferson off Mike Butcher. Mahay started in center field and batted eighth. He struck out in his final at-bat in the eighth inning, and that was the end of him as a starting major league outfielder.
"When I watched him in the outfield then, he had good mechanics with his throwing and a nice arm slot," recalled Hale. "I remember having him in A ball in 1994 and then the replacement season came a year later.
"That offseason, [Triple A manager Buddy] Bailey took him to Australia to play in the Australian League and he came back a pitcher. I'm telling you, nobody worked any harder than this kid to become what he is today. He's one of the best lefty relievers out there."
Mahay worked his way back with the Sox as a pitcher; Al Nipper taught him the foshball changeup.
"I've always been blessed with a good left arm," said Mahay, "and I've been able to learn how to pitch because I've had so many great pitching coaches, starting with Al Nipper, who first taught me the fosh changeup, which enabled me to have another pitch besides the fastball to throw.
"Believe me, if Al hadn't spent the time with me and taught me that pitch . . . it's really helped me so much against righthanded hitters."
Mahay spent parts of the 1997 and 1998 seasons with the Sox, and befriended Jason Varitek, which is why when he struck out Varitek in a key situation Monday night, it was bittersweet.
Mahay was waived after the 1999 season and picked up by Oakland. He pitched for the A's, Cubs, Padres, Rangers, and Braves, really finding himself with the Rangers. He learned about pitching in situations. He began to study hitters and their tendencies, and he became a pitcher who kept hanging around, learning, and getting better.
It brought him all the way to this point, playing for a lousy team with a good bullpen. He's been scouted a lot this season, and every scout I've talked with who has watched Mahay pitch has recommended him.
"They've used him in every situation imaginable," said Royals great Frank White, now a broadcaster. "I was managing at rookie league with the Red Sox in Winter Haven and he was a level up, and I remember after our games I'd go watch him play. He could really play defense and throw.
"I think the thing that did him in was that he never could hit a curveball. I think it was Bob Schaefer that suggested he turn into a pitcher. And the kid really worked at it.
"He's been a pleasure to watch. I think last weekend was the first time he'd given up back-to-back home runs. But he's been used by Trey [Hillman, Royals manager] in some of the most crucial situations."
Mahay kept his ear to the ground around the trade deadline. He heard rumors about the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cardinals, you name it. The one that piqued his curiosity was Boston. He always felt there was some unfinished business there.
"From what I understand, if the deal was really, really good for us, I would have gone," he said. "But that didn't happen, so I'm here and I really like it here in Kansas City."
In so many ways, it's the Rick Ankiel story in reverse.
"I spoke to Rick about it," said Mahay. "We went the opposite way, but the right way for both of us."
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.