When growing up in the Tampa Bay area, Aric Almirola was faced with a difficult decision – pursue a career in baseball or auto racing.
Almirola opted for a career on four wheels and is currently in his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season driving the famed No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports.
“Right before I went to high school, I had to make that decision, do I want to race or try to play baseball,” Almirola said. “What do I want to do? I choose racing and never looked back.”
On Tuesday, things came full circle as Almirola returned to his hometown to participate in batting practice with the Tampa Bay Rays as he promoted the upcoming Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola on Saturday, July 5.
It was the second straight year that Almirola visited with the Rays. Last year, he threw out the first pitch. This year, he got to take the field and swing for the fences.
“I haven’t hit a baseball in literally 15 years,” Almirola said. “To get in the cage and hit some balls was really good. I got a few out of the infield.
“My goal was not to swing and miss too many times which I didn’t. If the outfield would be about 270 (feet), I might have gotten a couple out here. But 370 is a reach for me.”
The Rays were kicking off an interleague series with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In addition to batting practice, Almirola gave Rays manager Joe Maddon a crew shirt while fellow Tampa native and Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III presented a Rays-themed driver’s helmet autographed by all 43 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers.
Maddon gave Almirola a Rays autographed batting helmet with the special message: “Aroma matters: Stay fast.”
Almirola visited with Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen, 2013 NL MVP and three-time All-Star.
Almirola will make his second visit of the year to Daytona International Speedway next week for the Coke Zero 400. Earlier this year in the season-opening Daytona 500, he was collected in a multi-car crash and finished 39th.
He hopes avoid trouble and have an opportunity to win at his hometown track in the mid-summer classic and secure a spot in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I want to win there more than I want to win anywhere,” Almirola said. “For whatever reason, I always have some sort of bad luck. Hopefully, knock on wood, this year we won’t have any bad luck when we show up to go Fourth of July racing.”