The man behind the chops

The man behind the chops

The man behind the chops
Another packed lunch at Mazzaro's is in full swing. Aisles bustle with regulars drawn to the vast lineup of gourmet cheeses, meats and all manner of Italian market cuisine. But it only takes a few moments for the staff and many patrons to recognize the face from a different lineup in town.

The Wolverine is in the house -- and heads begin to turn. Those dark lambchop sideburns that sprawl along his square jawline, separated only by a clean-shaven patch on the chin, are impossible to miss.They instantly bring to mind actor Hugh Jackman's portrayal of the comic book and X-Men movie superhero with the menacing retractable claws.

Luke Scott's special power, on the other hand, isn't just the menacing baseball bat he can wield as the first-year Rays designated hitter.

It has nothing to do with the metal gladiator helmets that he and first baseman Carlos Peña recently ordered online and wore in the dugout and clubhouse, helping keep spirits loose during the Rays deluge of disabled-list woes.

The defining trait becomes evident shortly after Scott parks his SUV in the jammed lot and steps inside Mazzaro's for a bite on the way to work.

What stands out here are his people skills: the broad smile, the ease he exudes in engaging folks in friendly banter as he goes about his business. All the while, he genuinely seems to enjoy the give-and-take, coming across as a regular guy rather than a multi-million-dollar ballplayer.

"Hey Luke, been hunting lately?" an employee, Randy Colbeck, calls out.

An avid outdoorsman, Scott proceeds to chat for several minutes about buddy trips he's taken, breaking down the cost of various hunting packages and techniques-shooting the breeze as if discussing baseball statistics.

He may be a newcomer to the area, but the 33-year-old from rural northeast Florida near Deland has quickly made himself right at home with the Rays, and at spots like Mazzaro's, after four seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. The common threads, whether in the clubhouse or out in the community, are his straightforward manner, upbeat style and down-to-earth personality.

At Tropicana Field, spectators can frequently be heard bellowing "Luuuuuke" when he steps to the plate, having established himself as an offensive leader and fan favorite. Scott has become such a fan favorite at Tropicana Field, kids have been painting "Wolverine" stripes on their faces. And his new teammates have embraced him as well.

Consider these words from veteran team leader Peña: "Luke is one of the best teammates I've ever had. I truly, truly appreciate his friendship -- and it's a friendship I intend to keep 'til death. He's very thoughtful, and there's a lot of depth to him. And he's just a good guy."

Now, barely inside Mazzaro's for a minute, a voice calls out over the din of conversations from behind one of the busy food counters.

"Hey Luke, you getting the hot Italian today?" asks Brent Valentine.

Scott stops to talk sandwich recommendations with his pal, better known as the Cheese Guy. Within seconds, a man and woman wearing Rays jerseys approach. They want to let him know how happy they are he's on the team. Scott talks as if he already knows them, then thanks the couple warmly.

"He's always got a great smile, and he's a great hitter," says Nancy Gayne of Seminole. Adds her husband Vern: "He's very easy to talk to, and didn't try to rush away or hide."

Yet underlying his gregarious nature is another dimension. He's dead serious when it comes to treating baseball with a sense of responsibility -- from nutrition to training to hitting, right down to the smallest of details.

You learn about them -- and more -- during a typical day for a man who is all business about the game he loves, yet who also loves to enjoy life beyond the game. And for a meandering morning and early afternoon, he's more than willing to take us along for the ride.

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Scott's day begins around 11 a.m. inside a modern, two-story rental home on a quiet neighborhood stretch of St. Pete Beach. He awakens after a solid night's sleep-something he requires of himself to rejuvenate his body from the baseball grind.

And maybe there's more Wolverine in him than even his distinctive facial hair suggests, considering how the Marvel Comics character possesses super strength and a healing capability to overcome wounds and disease at a fast rate.

The first thing the muscular 6-foot, 205-pounder does is gulp down some 16 ounces of purified water in which he controls the PH level with a state-of-the-art alkaline water machine he swears by.

"The PH helps fight inflammation, because inflammation or disease can't survive in an alkaline environment."

Scott credits his rapid healing from season-ending major shoulder surgery last summer, in part, to the high-in-PH water he consumes. After drinking a jug of water to flush his system, he pours a tall glass of orange juice, mixes in powdered green food, various vitamins, minerals and amino acids, and chugs it down.

His kitchen cupboard is stocked with an array of vitamins, protein bars, glutamine for his protein shakes, quinoa and nutritional products that would make any health-food store proud. He creates all-natural drinks out of carrots, apples, celery, pineapple and ginger with his juicer on the counter; flash steams seafood and veggies for high-protein meals; and even makes his own cereal out of oats, almond slices, buckwheat and coconut flakes.

And just beyond the kitchen is another item Scott has added to his pre-furnished home -- his very own massage table. In fact, he also employs a physical therapist.

"I fly him in every month during the season and he comes to my home in the offseason twice," Scott said.

It's part of an intense training regimen that Scott follows to a tee as part of his year-round commitment -- a "detox" phase after the season, featuring a juice diet and fasting to cleanse his system, followed by a grueling "boot camp" phase and six weeks with his personal trainer in Oklahoma City starting every Jan. 1.

Scott sits down at his St. Pete Beach dining room table, the waterway shimmering beyond glass doors in the late morning sun. A world away from his childhood in little De Leon Springs, he reflects on the years that shaped him. His father, David, was a stone mason and construction worker. His mother, Jennifer, worked two jobs, as a waitress and a bartender to help make ends meet. Scott learned life-long lessons from each parent.

Money was always scarce for the Scotts, and taking Luke and his younger siblings -- brother, Noah, and sister, Jackie -- to the doctors wasn't always an option. So Jennifer read all she could about home remedies for ailments and schooled herself on diets to prevent maladies and ways to fortify her kids.

"My brother and I have fallen out of trees 20 feet up, and no broken bones because we were putting the right stuff in our bodies since Day One. We're bionic," he says, smiling.

Perhaps a young Wolverine was in the making, a transformation his father would help further in his own way.

At 13, Scott desperately wanted to purchase his own hunting rifle. His dad agreed to help, but only if young Luke spent the summer at the construction site doing grunt work for $6 an hour.

"It was daylight to dark, 14-hour days, under the Florida sun," Scott recalls. "And I pushed 250- to 300-pound wheelbarrows full of mortar through job-site sugar sand, all day long. It really taught me a lot about character and gave me a respect for my dad.

"The other thing it did was make me strong." Then he chuckles: "That summer did something to me genetically."

Scott went on to star at Deland High and earn All-Big 12 honors at Oklahoma State, where he majored in economics and minored in international business. But he remains a Florida boy at heart, true to his De Leon roots and loyal to his family.

He built his offseason home there on 22 pastoral acres of cattle land abutting a horse ranch, with a 4,000-square-foot barn. The spacious country house contains big, separate rooms with lofts for his parents and two siblings, including Jackie's husband and the couple's two young children.

"It's a tremendous blessing and I'm very thankful for it," says Scott, a bachelor. "The construction business is struggling big-time, and I couldn't let my family suffer and me go live somewhere else in the lap of luxury. I wouldn't be able to lay my head on the pillow at night."

Scott walks out onto a second-floor deck and down a set of stairs to a large grassy back yard, with a pool, outdoor kitchen and a dock. His family, who stays here with him frequently, is back home across the state. But there's company a few yards away-a pair of manatees bobbing by the water's edge.

"If my brother was here right now, we'd throw a few lines in and do some fishing," he says, smiling beneath a bright noon sun. "Maybe get ready to cook some chicken or venison and play a little Call of Duty on the Xbox."

Instead, it's time to climb into his SUV and cruise through a town he says already feels like home.

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As he drives, Scott talks about something else that has helped him along the way through his baseball journey: his faith.

He credits his deep religious convictions with helping him deal with bumps along the road, like the Tommy John surgery he had right out of college, the early years in the minors when money was so tight he slept on apartment floors atop an egg-crate mattress from Wal-Mart and the frustrating demotion by Houston in 2005 despite hitting 31 homers in 449 Triple-A at-bats.

His career eventually took off after a trade to Baltimore, where Scott established himself with consecutive seasons of 23, 25 and 27 homers through 2010, catching the Rays attention as a player they might one day like to have.

Then came last season and the shoulder injury from one too many diving catches. Scott played through the pain until his game suffered too much. He underwent surgery in July, five months before the Rays signed him to a one-year deal. His teammates value his contributions -- not just on the field, but as a clubhouse presence. They encouraged him to keep his offseason beard, something team rules with Baltimore forbade, giving rise to the Wolverine look he wanted to try for fun. But there's his serious side: the student in the science of hitting.

"Luke's a strategist," says manager Joe Maddon. "He actually could probably be a very good hitting instructor at some point in his life."

His life is baseball, but more than baseball. There's his charity work sending food and supplies to Venezuela, where he developed many friendships playing winter baseball. Fluent in Spanish, he often spent time walking the city, conversing with the needy about their struggles.

"It was my street ministry," he said.

He has frequently reached out to combat veterans, inviting many to his home for mini-vacations to relax and decompress.

And there's the enjoyment he has interacting with people in general. After arriving at Mazzaro's, Scott hands a signed bat as a surprise to cook Matt Friedt, who often takes his meal orders. Friedt's jaw drops.

After a lunch of lasagna, Scott poses for a few pictures with elated patrons and leaves for the Trop. A game against Toronto awaits. Nine hours later, he'll be back on the beach, mixing a protein shake before to heading to bed to replenish himself with much-needed rest-and start all over in the morning.

A Wolverine's work is never done.

Dave Scheiber is a writer for Inside Pitch magazine. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.