Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Finley puts his face out there in search of a job
By Amy K. Nelson ESPN.com
NASHVILLE -- Steve Finley needed something to eat on Sunday night, so he headed to the restaurant in the hotel he was staying at and sat down, getting in his last big meal before he took the next step of his career -- one he never quite imagined.
Before he could make that step, he needed dinner. Sitting nearby was a small group of men, likely 20 years younger than the 42-year-old Finley, and they recognized the 19-year veteran major leaguer and told him they were in town looking for baseball internships. They needed a job.
"That's funny," Finley said, "so do I."
Steve Finley (wearing a black shirt) was in Nashville seeking to get a job in 2008.
And to find one he came to Nashville, site of this year's annual baseball winter meetings. It's not easy getting on a plane, leaving your family and showing up as a player who was once considered premier but now is thought of as old.
After the Rockies released him this past June, Finley didn't get a job again. He said he didn't want to leave the game that way.
Finley has 2,548 hits, two All-Star appearances and a World Series ring from 2001 with Arizona. He was drafted in 13th round of the 1987 draft and debuted with the Orioles in 1989. Why would a player with five Gold Gloves and 1,167 career RBIs need to ask for a job in person, when only three years earlier he had made his first winter-meetings appearance at a press conference announcing him as the newest Angels outfielder?
"I want to see people eye-to-eye and express my desire to play," Finley said. "Conditioning is very important to me, and I want to be here to be seen, and let people know that I'm in great shape."
Finley's sense of humor was necessary for his two days spent here, otherwise the visit could have come across as one of desperation. Finley doesn't see it as desperate, and many others who know him don't see it that way, either.
"It doesn't surprise me that he's here looking for a job, knowing how confident he is," said an NL manager.
That didn't stop some from privately questioning why he was here, when his agent, Casey Close, could do the job and let Finley remain at home with his five kids (the oldest is 14, while the youngest is 3).
But Finley was confident in his decision and approached it the same way he played: with an unassuming professionalism.
The genesis of the idea happened over a week ago, but Finley made his decision on Saturday, after his wife, Amy, encouraged him to make the trip. By the next afternoon he was in Tennessee and hitting the pavement. It was an old-fashioned but proactive approach in search of his next employer.
"My wife said, 'You need to go there,'" Finley said. "She's like, 'No. You need to go there.' She's always had a good head on her shoulders about things like that."
So Finley started Monday morning by walking into the lobby of the Opryland hotel, in search of an ear or a familiar face. Almost right away he found one in Braves manager Bobby Cox. After their talk, Finley walked away thinking that it was worth the trip, even just for that moment.
As it turned out, a report that night said the Braves might have an interest in Finley. But chatting with Cox was not his only objective. So Finley, dressed casually but professionally in a velvet blazer and T-shirt and wearing business pants, did what nearly everyone else here does: He walked around and waited to run into people for information.
Along the way he reconnected with old teammates, managers, coaches and clubhouse guys. Little kids and grown men asked him for his autograph. And beat writers, from some of the eight different teams for which he has played, approached and interviewed him for stories. By the end of the afternoon, Finley needed a break to return 33 unanswered e-mail and voice-mail messages.
"The day has flown by," he said just before going to dinner. "I think I've found the hot spot to stand in to see everybody. When I leave here, if somebody doesn't know I want to play, then I've done something wrong."
Finley was back in the lobby later that evening, this time dressed more casually in a turtleneck sweater and jeans, and he eagerly walked across the sprawling hotel to the "Baseball Tonight" set so he could broadcast his desire to keep playing. He ended his night in the lobby catching up with former teammates Cal and Billy Ripken and Todd Greene.
He said he felt it was a positive day.
I want to see people eye-to-eye and express my desire to play. Conditioning is very important to me, and I want to be here to be seen, and let people know that I'm in great shape.
Players who come to the winter meetings in search of a job are rare, but not unprecedented. A few years ago in Dallas, reliever Jeff Nelson was at the bar drinking with a few general managers, and Kevin Millar and Barry Bonds have dropped in on the annual gathering.
This year Finley was not alone; left-hander Brian Anderson was here as a broadcaster for his local cable-access sports show, but he also was getting the message out that he's attempting a comeback after last pitching in the majors in 2005 for Kansas City.
Anderson ran into Finley in the lobby on Tuesday morning, and the two shared stories of their experiences and agreed that they didn't want to leave the game the way they have.
"I still have something left in me," said Anderson, who had Tommy John surgery in July 2006. "I don't want to stop playing when I know I still can."
Finley's time away from the game has not been nearly as long, but he's not ready to walk away.
"Brian Anderson was right," Finley said. "He told me that once you're out of the game like that, the game moves on. And he's right. If you don't come back and let them know that you want to be on that ride again, you're gone. It's very true.
"You've got to stay in their mind because once you leave their mind, you're gone."
Finley wrapped up his walking tour of Opryland late Tuesday afternoon, and he squeezed in a conversation with former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who told Finley he wanted to sign him 15 years ago. He also checked in with his agents one last time.
Finley is realistic; he knows the market for center fielders needs to develop before the calls come. He didn't have any official meetings with any teams during his time here, and he knows that he might get only a minor league invite, though he's hopeful that won't be the case. Whether it be the Braves, or even the Dodgers -- the only two teams that initially appeared intrigued -- or another team, Finley left knowing his visit here was not in vain.
"I feel absolutely, 100 percent confident I've done everything in my power to find a job," Finley said. "Now it's in the hands of the teams that make the decisions."
And now for Finley, it's back home. Where he'll enjoy his family and wait for the call, hoping it comes one last time.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.