How the Rays bond over the NYT crossword puzzle

Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, the greatest New York Mets player ever, did The New York Times crossword puzzle every day. When his team was on the road, he was the first person in the hotel gift shop every morning because sometimes there were only a few available copies of the paper. And Seaver had to do the NYT crossword for his day to truly be complete.

Now there is a major league bullpen that does the same. Every day for the past five years, the Tampa Bay Rays’ bullpen, led by closer Pete Fairbanks and late-inning left-hander Colin Poche, does the NYT crossword puzzle in the clubhouse before games. Fairbanks recently finished the crossword by himself in 16 minutes, but acknowledged, “It was a Monday, those are the easiest ones of the week.” So, on a Tuesday in Port Charlotte, Florida, Pete and Po, as Poche is known, sat at a table in a room in the Rays clubhouse, took out pens, not pencils, and, without a dictionary, thesaurus or Google, completed the NYT crossword in 37 minutes — despite being distracted by questions from an annoying baseball writer.

Po: “We used to do the USA Today crossword, but that’s the JV crossword.”

Pete: “We decided to up our game to the varsity puzzle, The New York Times. The Saturday puzzle is the hardest one, but the Sunday puzzle has the most volume.”

It is a joint effort by the Rays bullpen. Anyone can join in. Jalen Beeks, now with the Colorado Rockies, was a constant last year, as was Ryan Thompson, now with the Arizona Diamondbacks (“We always mooched off Ryan’s subscription until I got mine this spring,” Fairbanks said). Rays reliever Jason Adam, who Fairbanks said is “the best with puns I’ve ever encountered,” is a regular.

Rays manager Kevin Cash said he has been asked several times to contribute.

“I don’t even try, I have no chance,” Cash said, laughing.

“He’s a Florida State guy,” Poche said, laughing. “Some of the worst answers I’ve seen in a crossword are from a guy who also went to Florida State,” Fairbanks added.

“It’s a weird type of knowledge you need to do this,” Poche said. “It’s not just straight out of a book.”

Sometimes, the contributors don’t name themselves.

“We have to keep this vague,” Poche said, “but we have someone in the clubhouse, we think he’s from the coaching staff … if we don’t finish the puzzle, and we have to go out for BP, he will come in and put in answers. They turn out to be wrong a lot.”

“It’s like the scene in ‘Good Will Hunting,’ only Will Hunting is bad at math,” Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks has been doing crosswords since he was a kid. “My dad is a religious doer of the New York Times crossword,” he said. “So when I saw him doing it, I would see if I could get an answer. The reason I like it so much is because my dad also loves Jeopardy. By that, I love Jeopardy. So, it’s fun to test yourself.”

“I got interested in the minor leagues, random hotels,” Poche said. “See if they had a crossword.”

Now, it’s a welcome reprieve from a high-pressure job.

“The crossword is a distraction from baseball, that’s why I like it,” Fairbanks said. “Po and I have thrown a lot of leverage [innings] over the last few years. It’s nice that are times when you’re on the field, you are ready to do your job and you don’t have to think about actually doing it.”

“There are times when I walk in the clubhouse and I’m so excited to do the crossword,” Poche said. “It’s not even like baseball — it’s crosswords with a coffee.”

Both are exceptionally bright (Fairbanks “is very, very intelligent,” Cash said), and both love to read. Fairbanks said when he’s alone in spring training, away from the responsibilities of his wife and two young children, he might read “a book a day.” He reads almost exclusively fiction “because I love stories,” but also will read anything written by Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell.

“My mom was a fourth-grade teacher, then a librarian,” Fairbanks said. “She read to me so much growing up that I just ran with it. My fondest reading memory is when I started reading on my own. My mom read the first Harry Potter book aloud to me at bedtime. I was in the first grade. We made it a few chapters through the second book and I told her, ‘Mom, you read too slow.’ So I read it by myself after that. People talk about going to a movie premier at midnight. I was the kid who would go to Borders at midnight when the Harry Potter books came out. I got ‘The Order of the Phoenix’ first thing one morning. My mom took me out, she was running errands. I found the first chair in the store and just started reading until she was done running her errands. When she was done, I was still sitting there.”

Poche mostly loves nonfiction, and also called out Gladwell as a favorite. And of course, both read to their children.

“Isak is 4, Lotte is 2,” Fairbanks said. “I read to them every night. My son is infatuated by reptiles. So I have read this stupid little National Geographic lizard book every night. It’s like, ‘Buddy, can we read this other section?’ And he’s like, ‘No, I want my little lizard.’ ‘So, I say, ‘OK, I will read that as your third book.”’

Fairbanks and Poche say they finish “usually all” of the crosswords they start, though “occasionally we’ll have to Google one of the answers,” Poche said. “If there is consensus among that group that we need to Google that, then we do at times.”

“If you are sneaking off to Google something, that’s a no-no,” Fairbanks said. “We will look at a clue, we’ll look at each other and say, ‘We have absolutely nothing here,’ that is allowable on crosswords. Some people might disagree with that, the purists. Our knowledge base is a little different from some other people.”

Pete: “It is very much a celebration — like hands-in-the-air celebration — when we get the last answer of the puzzle, especially when it’s a particularly annoying three- or four-letter word. Sometimes, the word doesn’t sound great, but it is what we’re going to go with.”

Po: “We will finish one, and the last answer I’ll say, ‘I still don’t think I know what that is.’ When we are finished, we will look up the word and we’ll say, ‘It really does mean that!”’

Pete: “When we are done with a crossword, we all sign it. Then we fold it up and throw it right in the recycle. Then we repeat the process the next day.”

They each have their own areas of interest. “Po and I are equal partners,” Fairbanks said. “We have our own strengths and weaknesses. What Po calls ‘the nerd s—,’ that goes directly to me.”

Po: “I’m OK with anything in a different language. I’m pretty good in Spanish. I grew up around Dallas, it was a big requirement in high school. After getting into pro ball, I wanted to be able to talk to my teammates.”

Pete: “He’s really good at the clues where you think it’s the first thing, but actually it’s an alternative.”

Poche crosses off the clue each time he gets an answer correctly. Fairbanks does not.

“I don’t because … I operate on a higher intellectual function,” he said, laughing.

Two lovers of the game, lovers of words, attack the Tuesday crossword. They start in different places, not necessary at 1 across. They work together, yet independently. When they get stumped on an answer, they go somewhere else on the grid to get as many answers on paper as possible.

Po: “Anthony Hopkins’ role in ‘Thor’ is one that I refer to Pete.”

Pete: “I believe Anthony Hopkins was Odin in ‘Thor.”’

Po: “Three down. Eagerly awaited occasion?”

Pete: “Big moment. That should give us some stuff on 22 across.”

Po: “I just take his word for a lot of these.”

Pete: “Final Four org is NCAA. No blank traffic? Thru traffic, not sure how often people follow that.”

Po: “I got one wrong here. Something funky? 6 across.”

Pete: “I think milliliters is not right here because ‘reached the billboard top 100?’ is ‘chart.’ C, blank, C, blank, blank. This is cacao.”

Pete: “17 down. Part of a coat? It has to be lapel.”

Po: “Many a sport drink ending in ade?’

Pete: “Go to be fruit drink.”

Po: “Good clue here, 43 down. Ah, dorky.”

Pete: “That’s not dorky. Swift to fill a concert hall? That’s Taylor.”

Po: “Got dweeby.”

Po: “I got one. Three-hole punch.”

Pete: “This is funny: A bad way to run? Is to run amok.”

Po: “Place to swing your partner round and round?”

Pete: “Barn dance.”

Pete: “I didn’t want to 5 down to be ‘slangy,’ but unfortunately that’s the answer.”

Po: “I think I am done with mine now.”

Pete: “Last one. Abbreviation at the end of a list of authors? Et al.”

Thirty-seven minutes. Done. Puzzle officially finished by the closer.

Pete: “Et al. And that is all.”

They signed their completed puzzles and threw them in the recycle bin. Tomorrow, they will repeat the process.

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