THEY RENTED the place for a month, but no one wants to be here
for another day. No one wants to be that last lonely kid on the
playground when the sides have been chosen and the games have
begun. ``This place is great,'' says Jody Reed, ``but to tell you
the truth, I hope I'm not here much longer.''
Reed was one of the 28 veteran free agents to show up last Friday
at a strange and awkward training camp in Homestead, Fla., that
was organized by the Major League Baseball Players Association.
More than 150 players had been invited to the camp, which was
created to give them something to do while their agents found them
jobs. The union is supplying hotel rooms, rental cars and nice new
players' association T-shirts, but the players all have the same
goal in mind: to see this place in the rearview mirror while
heading to a real spring training camp. As long as they stay in
Homestead, they'll be out of work. ``Our goal is to get everyone
out of here,'' says one union official, ``then shut down and go
Former Oakland A's skipper Jackie Moore has agreed to serve as
manager at the camp, and he has the assistance of no fewer than 11
coaches. If the players can't find any teams willing to scrimmage
them, they can always take on the coaches. On paper, sad to say,
it appears to be a pretty even match.
Moore said he ``brought two suitcases'' and is prepared to stay
Homestead until May. Despite the puny turnout, he insisted he was
encouraged. Maybe he was comparing it to the dismal showing of the
scouts. ``I'm sure they're up there somewhere,'' said Mickey
Tettleton, nodding toward the 40 or so people in the stands.
Actually, they weren't up there. He was. His name was Don Welke,
and for the first couple of days of the free-agent camp, he was a
very lonely scout. Welke, who works for the Toronto Blue Jays,
was, in fact, the only representative of a major league club on
the premises. Where were the other 27 teams? ``Good question,''
said Welke. ``I guess they just decided to handle it by phone.''
Most clubs claimed they were busy enough with the opening of their
own camps. Then again, maybe the clubs chose not to grab their
checkbooks and attend a yard sale at the home of the players'
union, which, last time we checked, was their sworn enemy. After
taking a $700 million hit during the strike, the owners might be
inclined to trim their lavish payrolls, and it would seem that the
high-priced, mid-level, utility-type veteran free agents would be
a logical place to start. It turns out that many of those very
players are hanging out together in Homestead. It's a good thing
the owners are such kind and forgiving people. Otherwise they
might enjoy the idea of a whole bunch of ballplayers sweating it
out until the ingrates agree to play for food.
``I think maybe the players are realizing now that they're not
going to be paid what they want anymore,'' says pitcher Dave
Stewart, who signed with the A's on the second day of the camp.
``Veteran free agents are going to suffer unless they put up some
great numbers. If you put up Dennis Martinez numbers, then you'll
get paid. If not, then you won't. And you know what? That's
probably the way it always should have been.''
For the first couple of days of the camp, the players in the
clubhouse at the Homestead Sports Complex looked around like puppy
dogs in the pet store window. Is this the day? Will someone
finally take me home? While some players wondered which teams
would make them offers, others wondered if there would be any
offers at all. They knew they probably fell somewhere between
manatees and Masterpiece Theater on the endangered species list.
``All I know,'' said Tettleton, the first player to arrive at camp
and one of the more attractive names on the roster, ``is that I'm
not done yet.''
Golf, fishing and other typical spring training activities have
been replaced by an old favorite -- sitting in the hotel room,
waiting for the agent to call. A select few players signed
quickly: Outfielder Mike Devereaux found out at the end of the
first workout that his agent had closed a deal with the Chicago
White Sox, while pitcher Bobby Witt spent last Friday on the
phone with his agent before agreeing to terms with the Florida
Naturally, the best of the available players will get plucked out
of this camp early, leaving a dwindling talent pool as well as a
depressing atmosphere. The state-of-the-art complex was scheduled
to become the home of the Cleveland Indians before Hurricane
Andrew swept through in 1992 and seriously damaged it. Now the
complex has been repaired, and the town would kill for another big
league team, but many clubs seem to think it's too far out of the
Grapefruit League loop, 30 miles south of Miami. The complex sits
at the tip of the Florida turnpike, a fitting locale for a few
players who seem to be near the end of the road.
The union has booked the facility at bargain rates through April,
meaning a few dreamers could still be here past Opening Day. It
might be embarrassing for the last guy who doesn't sign a contract
or quit. Will he show up at the park and have no one to play catch
Some of the big names who were headed to Homestead never made it.
Dave Winfield (Indians) and Bob Tewksbury (Texas Rangers) signed
contracts before they got to camp. The only trace of them was
their name tags over their lockers. Stewart, meanwhile, traveled
here from his home in San Diego and found out in the middle of his
second day in camp that his agent had made the deal with Oakland.
A reporter broke the news to Stewart, who cut short his practice
session to begin his trek to Arizona and the A's spring training
site. Like everywhere else he goes, the Homestead camp was lucky
to have him. ``I had a good time while I was here,'' Stewart said.
``I have fun anywhere I go. To me, just playing the game is a
It sure beats the alternative, which is the whole point of this
camp. The players aren't here to get in shape; if their regimen
were any less strenuous, birds would build nests in their caps. No
one wants to risk injury when he's unemployed. The players come
here simply to be seen and to remind general managers that their
services are still available. Most of the players realize that the
gravy train ran off the tracks and they no longer can sit back and
wait for some foolhardy owner to stuff money in their pockets. If
they had a team song, it would be Ain't Too Proud to Beg. If this
were the prom, they would be the homely outcasts, sitting out
another slow dance.
``I have found that free agency is a detriment,'' says Reed. ``You
play hard for six years, and you think free agency is something to
shoot for. But then you get there, and it makes no sense. There's
just no rhyme or reason to the free-agent market anymore. It's
Reed, like many of the players in Homestead, spent more time
signing baseballs than hitting them. A big part of the players'
association's mission this spring is soothing the fans'
strike-induced nausea. After a two-hour workout Saturday, Reed
joined a handful of other players at an afternoon clinic for 200
area kids. One of the kids raised his hand and asked a question of
the players. ``Why are you guys, like, so greedy and stuff?'' said
the Little Leaguer.
A few minutes earlier, as he was packing up and heading out,
Stewart -- who was to earn $3.5 million last season in Toronto but
settled for a base salary of $1 million this year to return to
Oakland -- had been hearing similar questions. He said the pay
cut didn't upset him because he'll never notice the difference.
``I'm not affected by it,'' Stewart said. ``I've played 15 years
and I've made a lot of money. Now I can play wherever I want, for
whatever I want. I know some guys play for money, but that's the
wrong attitude. What are you going to do -- let this game beat you
down? Or are you going to play and have fun? That's what we're
supposed to do. We're supposed to have fun.''
That was easy for Stewart to say. He'd gotten a phone call and a
new contract, and now he was gone, off to work. The rest of the
guys were still sitting in the pet shop, noses pressed against the
window, wondering if they would ever get out of this place.