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Thursday, February 28, 2008
Some familiar faces back chasing their dreams

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- You see them roaming the baseball fields of Florida and Arizona every morning. Amazingly, no one ever calls security and chases them home.

Maybe you've watched them. If you haven't gotten around to having Lasik surgery, you might not even be able to tell them from, say, Albert Pujols or Josh Beckett.

But the Invited to Spring Training All-Stars are a different breed. Very different. Not necessarily a special breed. But definitely different.

You can't find them on the regular old roster sheet -- not without a magnifying glass, anyway.

Their numbers make most of them look as if they should be playing tackle for the Steelers.

And if their names sound familiar, that may be only because you've been watching too much ESPN Classic lately.

Hideo Nomo? Chan Ho Park?

Esteban Yan? Matt Mantei?

Kent Mercker? Brian Anderson?

They're all in somebody's uniform this spring. But what are they doing here? Didn't they retire in, like, 1996? Are we sure they didn't just sneak into the clubhouse when nobody was looking?

"I walked in," said Brian Anderson, the mysterious Tampa Bay invitee that he is. "And, honestly, I was just praying I had a locker. I was hoping nobody was at the door, taking tickets, because I obviously didn't have one."

Tickets? Heck, that's nothing. He didn't even have an invitation. And that's a mystery we've been trying to clear up for years now.

We saw his transaction with our very own eyeballs a few weeks back:

TAMPA BAY RAYS -- Signed left-handed pitcher Brian Anderson to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training.

This, friends, is a concept we can all relate to. Sort of. We've all been invited someplace in our lives, right? To a wedding. To a bar mitzvah. To a Super Bowl party, at the very least.

There's one major difference, however, between our invitations and the invitations received by the Invited to Spring Training All-Stars.

(Well, there are two, come to think of it, if you count the fact that somebody actually pays them to show up.)

All-Invited To Spring Team

1B: Doug Mientkiewicz (Pirates)
2B: Bret Boone (Nationals)
SS: Jose Macias (Pirates)
3B: Edgardo Alfonzo (Rangers)
LF: George Lombard (Dodgers)
CF: Alex Escobar (Nationals)
RF: Juan Gonzalez (Cardinals)
C: Javy Lopez (Braves)
DH: Matt LeCroy (A's)

Starting rotation: Hideo Nomo (Royals), Chan Ho Park (Dodgers), Shawn Estes (Padres), Glendon Rusch (Padres), Scott Elarton (Indians).

Bullpen: Brian Anderson (Rays), Kent Mercker (Reds), Chad Fox (Cubs), Tanyon Sturtze (Dodgers), Scott Williamson (Giants), Scott Strickland (Yankees), Matt Mantei (Tigers).

Reincarnation taxi squad: Junior Spivey (Red Sox), Chad Hermansen (Angels), Dee Brown (Angels), Bubba Crosby (Mariners), Ben Davis (Orioles), Luis Rivas (Pirates), Damon Hollins (Royals).

When we get an invitation, we at least get a card. And an envelope printed on paper so stiff, you could mount it on a pole and use it as a basketball backboard. And if this is a really big occasion, a bunch of glitter granules might even be in there, and a second envelope for the RSVP.

But for some reason, these spring-training "invitations" never work like that -- seeing as how no player we've talked to has ever gotten that invitation. And don't think they haven't waited by the mailbox, either.

Brian Anderson told our investigators that he waited. Waited for days after he signed with the Rays. Even suspected at one point that his invitation must have gotten lost inside a grocery circular.

"Don't think I didn't go through those things with a fine-tooth comb," said Anderson, a once-beloved left-hander for the Angels, Indians, Diamondbacks and Royals. "I did get the Val Pak, too. And by the way, there's a lot of deals in there -- but no invite to camp. Lots of good plumbing circulars and things like that, but no official invite."

It would be traumatic enough that the Invited to Spring Training All-Stars have no big league contract, no long-term guarantees and definitely no assurances that they'll ever be allowed to skip a single bus ride to Kissimmee.

But shouldn't there at least be an invitation? Some kind of invitation?

"I guess nowadays [you could go with] text messaging, e-mails," said Kent Mercker, currently hanging out in the Reds' camp after a year and a half out of baseball. "I mean, there are other ways to do it. But I'd kind of like the pretty envelope, with the little ribbon on it. And the gold inlay on the inside. And nice cursive writing that says you've been formally invited.

"That would be nice," Mercker said, poignantly. "It would make a guy feel a little better, especially at my age [40]. Like they actually want me here. They took the time to go to the store, buy this, put my name on it and formally invite me."

But no. No ribbon. No gold inlay. Nada. Not for him. Not for any of them.

"So there's nothing for you to celebrate," Anderson said. "There's nothing for you to put up on your refrigerator. There's nothing to put up on the corkboard. There's just them verbally saying, 'Hey, if you want to come on in, we're not going to waste postage on sending the contract to you.'"

Luckily for the teams that employ them, these guys show up anyway. Luckily, the joy of being able to play baseball again -- for at least another spring, hopefully for at least another season -- is all the motivation they need.

Your Invited to Spring Training All-Stars, you see, aren't standing on those fields, thinking about their new lob wedge or where they're going to lunch. Your Invited to Spring Training All-Stars are savoring merely being on a baseball field -- at all.

Kent Mercker

Mercker

"There's nothing else in your life that can replace being a baseball player," said Mercker, a man who hasn't thrown a pitch that counted since Aug. 11, 2006. "I played golf all the time last year, because at least that gave me a chance to compete. But after a while, you start thinking. You start to realize, 'I'm never going to compete at the highest level again.' I mean, as fun as golf is, I'm not going to play on the PGA tour."

But that moment of revelation, out on the golf course, was not the defining moment that reminded Mercker how much he missed baseball.

That moment came last summer, as he was driving a big RV around the Midwest, hauling his daughter from one horse show to the next. ("I was Clark W. Griswold," Mercker chuckled.)

One of his jobs at those horse shows was to carry around a little bag and (ahem) pick up (ahem) after his daughter's horse. As he roamed around with an attractive pink horsey bag one day, a man recognized him.

"The guy comes up to me," Mercker remembered, "and he says, 'You're Kent Mercker, right? A year ago, you were trying to get Barry Bonds out. And now you're carrying around a pink bag, walking behind a horse.'

"It was that moment," Mercker said, "that I said to my wife, 'You know honey, it's time to see how my arm is feeling.' "

So out he went to play catch with his daughter. It was about 10 months since his Tommy John surgery. He felt so good, "I was, like, 'Wow,'" he said.

Next thing he knew, he was throwing baseballs into a chain-link fence, because he didn't even have a catcher. The elbow still felt great. He moved back to 85-90 feet. Still felt way too good. Called his agent. One thing led to another. Now here he is.

"I think a lot of people see this as, 'Man, he must not like his family very much,'" Mercker said. "Naah. ... It's just not out of my system. And I'm not sure it ever will be."

That's a feeling all your Invited to Spring Training All-Stars can relate to. This isn't just their job. It's their favorite thing in life. So how do they stop? Why should they stop if some team, any team, wants to invite them to spring training?

"It's an addicting thing," said Anderson, a guy who has had two Tommy John surgeries since his last win, on April 10, 2005. "When you're younger, you think you're going to play and make some money, and then you're going to get out and go enjoy life. But when you get into your 30s, you don't think that way. You say, 'This is special. Not many people get to do this. ... And I just want to keep doing it.'"

It's an addicting thing. When you're younger, you think you're going to play and make some money, and then you're going to get out and go enjoy life. But when you get into your 30s, you don't think that way. You say, 'This is special. Not many people get to do this. ... And I just want to keep doing it.'

--Brian Anderson

Anderson, now 35, thought he was done, too, when his elbow self-destructed, for the second time, in the Rangers' spring-training camp in 2006. So he took a broadcasting job at SportsTime Ohio, figuring that was how he would feed his baseball addiction for the rest of his life.

Until he arrived in Winter Haven, Fla., last year to cover spring training, that is. Where he found himself standing outside the Indians' clubhouse, uncomfortably watching guys he once played with trotting off to greet another spring-training morning.

"You could hear the click of the spikes going down that little road off to the field," Anderson recalled, as vividly as the morning he heard it. "And I was like, this is brutal."

So he, too, began thinking about reviving the dream one last time. But it wasn't until last August, during a catch with his dad, that he seriously believed this was possible.

That started the dominoes toppling. ... A throwing program. ... A conversation at the winter meetings with Rays manager Joe Maddon. ... Four teams showing up to watch him at a January audition. ... It was all going great. And then ...

His agent, Michael Maas, informed him he'd thrown only 82 mph in that audition, causing those clubs to back off. So Brian Anderson thought about it, called Maas back and said, "I'm hanging 'em up." Fine, Maas said. But first, he suggested, do one thing -- call Dr. Timothy Kremchek.

So Anderson called his friendly neighborhood Tommy John surgeon and had the conversation that changed his life, right there in the supermarket -- "circling through produce, stuck between the lettuce and the grapes."

Amazingly, Dr. Kremchek picked up the phone on the first ring. He informed Anderson that, in reality, he was right on schedule, that his velocity would come back and that if he quit right now he'd be "a fool." By the time he hung up, Brian Anderson's retirement was on hold. Again.

Soon, the Rockies and Rays were back on his trail, as Anderson thanked the heavens for one thing -- his left-handedness.

"I had to laugh with my buddies back home," Anderson said. "I said, 'What is the state of pitching when there a couple of teams fighting over a 35-year-old left-hander, coming off two Tommy John surgeries, throwing 82 miles an hour?'"

Well, it might have been a sorry commentary on the state of pitching. But it has led to the happiest spring in Brian Anderson's career.

"You get to walk out here every day," he said. "You get to smell that grass that they just cut in the morning, or maybe the night before, and the fresh smell of all these fields. And I'm, like, 'Yes. I miss this.'"

He and Kent Mercker symbolize exactly why we need this collection of Invited to Spring Training All-Stars to come marching back into these camps every February. They might not have an invitation. But at least they have a uniform. And a locker. And the security guards haven't blocked them at the door yet.

They still wonder why their invitation never showed up in the mail. But they sure are glad they didn't sit at home until it did.

"You know," laughed Brian Anderson, "we've still got three players in camp here who haven't shown up yet. I mean, they say it's 'visa problems.' But I just think that they're still waiting for those invitations."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.