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Rasmus

Colby Rasmus, before the Cardinals traded him in 2011. (Chris Lee photo / Post-Dispatch) 

SARASOTA, Fla. • In between a handshake with Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and hugs from former teammates like Kyle McClellan and Jason Motte, Colby Rasmus shrugged when asked about why he returned to baseball, a game that has defined him and confined him.

“Jumping on this roller coaster again,” he said.

Almost 13 years removed from being the Cardinals’ first pick of their new approach to drafting and torchbearer for this Homegrown Era, Rasmus has a chance to win the Baltimore Orioles’ right fielder job. He’s starting there Wednesday against the Cardinals, and he led off the game with a single. That he can still hit and still field is no surprise for a club that saw him grow into their starting center fielder for a franchise-defining trade in 2011.

That he wants to return to the field is.

Just last year he walked away from baseball, suddenly.

“Man, it wasn’t fulfilling me with all the happiness in the world,” Rasmus told the Post-Dispatch as he waited his turn during O’s batting practice. “It’s always been that love-hate relationship. That’s how it is with every player. All of my life it’s all I’ve been around. I realized that even more when I went home. That’s about the only thing I’m good at. Or, that I could get lost in.”

Rasmus, now 31, started the previous year with Tampa Bay after two years reunited with Cardinals draft guru Jeff Luhnow in Houston. On a one-year deal with the Rays, Rasmus had a .281/.318/.579 line with nine homers and 17 extra-base hits. He was slowed by a hip injury and other physical limitations that caught up with him – either through age, turf, or mileage. He stopped being around the team while he was on the disabled list.

His absence was noted in the clubhouse.

And, in early July, the Rays placed Rasmus on the restricted list with little explanation. The team said Rasmus planned to “step away” from the game. Retirement was whispered.

“Groundhog Day was Groundhog Day,” Rasmus said.

From the day he debuted as a pro and joked that the first time he saw snow was standing in the Low-A Quad Cities outfield, Rasmus had often talked about his search for the fun in baseball. He had been playing it since he was “itty bitty,” he said Wednesday, and coming from Phenix City, Ala., that meant playing it constantly. His dad saw the potential in his son and pushed him in the game. His brothers followed. But, it was a question around the Cardinals, especially after he got to the majors, whether he actually enjoyed the game.

He had his moments, of course.

Rasmus declined to go into detail about his “step away” last season, saying only that he wanted to go home. His wife, Megan, was pregnant with their third child. Rasmus has a small farm with cows to feed and make sure “nothing crazy is growing on them,” he grinned. He and a friend do some remodeling, and he works at a baseball facility complete with the travel teams that he once played on, day after day after day. On Dec. 1, son Raiden Cross arrived, and Rasmus listed the reasons he cherished being there for the months leading up.

“At the end of the day money can’t buy back those kind of things,” he said. “I’ve learned that in my day. Chasing the dream, chasing the money – leaves you kind of empty. So I wanted to go home and just enjoy the time away.”

In 2011, Rasmus had started losing playing time to Jon Jay in center field, and the Cardinals, knowing the friction crackling between Rasmus and manager Tony La Russa, built a trade around him with Toronto. That deal provided the bullpen parts that La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan used in the postseason to help carry the Cardinals – with some help from Albert Pujols, David Freese, and Chris Carpenter, of course – to the team’s 11th World Series title. Rasmus received a ring because of 94 games with the team that season.

La Russa went to Toronto to deliver it in person.

By then, Rasmus was a regular for the Blue Jays, and in four years there he would hit .234/.295/.433 with 66 of his 165 career home runs. When the Cardinals drafted him 28th overall in 2005, the first year of a more analytical-driven approach to the draft, they saw Rasmus as a late-first-round Jay Bruce, who went 12th overall. Rasmus was annually the Cardinals’ top prospect until his debut in 2009, and during one spring training before that an executive with the team likened Rasmus to Cleveland’s Grady Sizemore, one of the game’s best at the time. The kid from Alabama had that kind of upside. What he didn't always find was a fit.

Rasmus had a hot-cold turn with the Cardinals and never reached the expected heights. He was never an All-Star, but put together a solid career. He’s the first player to accept a qualifying offer and that gave him a $15.8-million salary in 2016. He earned around $40 million in his career.

He has 885 hits in his nine-year career, 490 RBIs, and in 1,074 games he’s scored 531 runs. He's been a sensation for his frazzled Abe Lincoln beard and his still-long hair. ("Long hair, don't care," he told a St. Louis radio station a few years ago.) Rasmus had enough on his baseball card and bank account to, yes, walk away and be father to two daughters and a new son. He could tend to his cows and find baseball where it found him, with kids.

But, even at home, he couldn’t shake the seams.

“The time off was good for me because it made me miss ...” Rasmus paused to come up with the right words, “the camaraderie of the boys, the nitty gritty of it all.”

Back in the mix as a free agent, Rasmus found a taker with the Orioles, who had seen him play often with the Jays and Rays. Manager Buck Showalter has a fondness for him and visited Alabama three years ago when Rasmus was a free agent to try and woo him. The opening in right hasn't been filled consistently since, and Showalter's lineup has a need for a lefthanded bat. The two fit.

He came to camp on a minor-league deal, and he is already a leading contender to break camp as the starting right fielder and sometime center fielder, according to reports from Orioles’ beat writers. Rasmus had his first Grapefruit League start Monday, and already Tuesday he’s got a single, a walk, and a run against his first organization.

He figured with the Cardinals in town, he’d get questions. He kidded with a reporter about how people "always want to talk about Col-bye Raz-mus."

Palmer only gave him a smile and a greeting.

“Welcome back,” the Orioles great said.

“I’m obviously not 20 anymore, and spry,” Rasmus said moments later, about to hop into the batting cage. “I was playing good baseball last year. Still feel like I can play some good baseball. Just felt like I wanted to give it another go. I had a little bit to give.”

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Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.