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 home."
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 in 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 plush 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 Marlins.
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.