Wednesday, March 12, 2008

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Ray King has spent enough of his career on the fringes of a major league roster that his latest shakeup — being traded from the Nationals to Milwaukee on Sept. 4 and returning to Washington this season on a minor league deal — wouldn’t have been enough to provoke a change.

But when he heard from several teams who shied away from him over fears he would break down from being overweight, it got him wondering.

Mostly, it got him wondering about his family members who had been diagnosed with diabetes and the fact that all of his grandparents died within two years of each other.

“You don’t think about that stuff when you’re 25 or 26,” he said. “When you reach 30, you start to think.”

And King responded. He started coaching his 14-year-old son Tyrell’s basketball team, his daughter Brookelynn’s soccer team — anything to get him running around. He swapped out fried foods for grilled entrees, cut soft drinks out of his diet and lost 22 pounds.

Now the 34-year-old left-hander is in Nationals camp with an inside track to making the team’s Opening Day roster as a reliever. Nothing has changed about his stuff, but in his appearance and his mentality, it’s clear there’s a major difference.

“Ray King came in on a mission,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “He knew what he had to do, and he came in prepared.”

King has given up just one hit in four scoreless innings this spring. His success against lefties (allowing a .213 average over nine major league seasons) has been his calling card, but King’s improved physique has given the Nationals reason to think he can match his performance from the early part of the decade, when he posted 324 appearances from 2001 to 2004.

“When you’re in better shape, you can bounce back quicker,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s shown he wants to extend his career and be taken seriously — not only by us but the rest of the major league teams.”

That’s all gratifying for King to hear, but he said slimming down was just as much a lifestyle change as it was a professional move.

He didn’t plan to shed pounds by spending every day in the weight room. He spent time landscaping outside his family’s new home in Arizona and stayed on the move at his kids’ sports practices. He would like it known his son’s basketball team went undefeated last winter — “[John] Wooden’s got nothing on me,” he said.

More importantly, though, the new activities gave King things to do once his baseball career is over.

“Being African American, I knew I was at risk for high blood pressure,” he said. “It was just about changing habits.”

From a baseball standpoint, King wanted to come back to Washington after spending most of last season there. So he instructed his agent to get in touch with Bowden — who drafted him in 1995 and triggered two of the seven trades King has been part of in his career. The two had a long relationship, and King liked what he had seen from the Nationals’ young players in 2007.

And in a bullpen that won’t likely have another lefty to start the season, Bowden considered King a potential steal at $850,000.

“When you’ve got a lefty you can use 80 times out of the bullpen, that’s a valuable asset,” Bowden said. “He’ll take the ball.”

King could be valuable enough, however, that he might find himself on the trading block again if Washington isn’t in the race and another playoff hopeful needs a reliever late in the season like Milwaukee did last year.

He will harbor no bad feelings if that happens. Mostly, he’s happy with what he has become.

“I’ve been traded so many times, I know it’s part of the business,” King said. “But I’m back where I want to be.”

Chat live with Mark Zuckerman on Wednesday at 1 p.m.

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