He approached the hotel lobby much like he once approached the mound. When Robert Person was pitching in the major leagues from 1995 through 2003, he liked to pull his cap down low over his eyes and saunter into a ballgame, mimicking a matador preparing for a date with El Toro. Was Person baseball's most talented righthander in his years with the Mets, Blue Jays, Phillies and Red Sox? Probably not. His fastball hung in the low 90s, his off-speed stuff was often hit or miss, his performances ranged from brilliant to good to inconsistent to crummy.
No matter what, however, Person, the pride of University City, Missouri, walked with his head held high. He believed he was going to win. "It's confidence," says Person, who retired with a lifetime mark of 51-42, including a magnificent 15-7 run with the Phillies in 2001. "I had it in droves."
Now, however, there was one thing missing: The swagger. Seven years removed from his final big league pitch, early last month Person entered the Walt Disney Swan & Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., hoping for ... something. Anything. A ray of light. A glimmer of hope. An optimistic word. A familiar face.
In the five years since his disastrous final professional season, during which he went 0-4 with a 6.37 ERA for the independent Bridgeport Bluefish then 2-3 with a 7.00 ERA for Triple-A Charlotte, Person has followed the path of far too many ex-athletes. The same man who earned $6.25 million with Philadelphia in 2002 is struggling to get by, a victim, he says, of terrible investments and manipulative handlers. He is divorced, mostly apart from his five daughters, renting a small home in Largo, Fla., trying to score little bits of carpentry work here and there. His days, he said, are long and sometimes depressing -- made bearable by the three rec league softball teams who feature him on the roster, as well as a part-time coaching gig at a local high school.
"It's been hard," says Person, 41. "Sometimes I get down, but I try not to stay down. When you're playing, you assume -- by investing your money -- you'll be set for life. Well, I trusted the wrong people. Bad people who took advantage.
"You'd think getting a job is easy for an ex-player, but it's really not. You're always told there's great value in baseball as a conversation piece. Truth is, it's the exact opposite. Potential employers see that you played in the majors and they ask you to list your past salaries, and it becomes like a big joke. 'Why would you wanna work here? Surely you're kidding.'"
Person pauses, a mix of anger and sadness accompanying the words. "I'm not kidding," Person says. "Not at all. I need the work."
Hence, the winter meetings. For two of the event's four days, Person, alongside a former minor league teammate named Joe Hall, made the 1 1/2-hour drive from Largo to Lake Buena Vista, hoping to walk the lobby, a la Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire. "Very awkward," says Person when asked to describe the initial moments. "I've been away for a while. Also, and this might sound dumb, it's hard to recognize guys you played with and against when they're not in uniform and caps. That's the way I remember them." And, apparently, vice versa. Person says he knew Terry Francona well back in the day, but when the two crossed paths in Florida the Boston manager didn't recognize him. "He walked right by me," Person said. "He had no idea." Only later on, when the two were introduced by Gary Sheffield, did Francona grin sheepishly. "Man, I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry."
As a ballplayer, Person was -- in the context of it all -- courageous. He fought through myriad injuries, filled whatever roles the team needed, rarely complained. In hindsight, however, that wasn't courage, or anything close to courage. It was a man making big bucks to do a job.
No, courage is when you're past your prime as an athlete and down on your luck as a man, and you swallow your pride, enter a hotel lobby and seek out work. With Sheffield graciously serving as a buffer, Person engaged in several discussions with various team executives. He told them all he'd love to coach in the minors, and would also be willing to scout. "At first I was pretty optimistic," he said. "I thought maybe people would call ... maybe something would happen. But the phone isn't ringing. Hasn't rung at all."
Person stops to think. He is standing on a softball field in Dunedin, Fla., mere yards from the spring training facility he used to call home as a Blue Jay. He has always been a nice man to deal with; a low-maintenance sort who went out on the field and did the job with integrity. Why, one must wonder, does someone like Person -- a successful big leaguer with a desire to teach -- have to beg for work? Why aren't there jobs waiting for him?
"I don't know," he says. "But I'll do whatever it takes.
"I left my ego at the door a long time ago."