Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Some familiar faces still looking for work
By Jerry Crasnick
Craig Biggio left Major League Baseball on his own terms. He joined the 3,000-hit club last June, took a farewell tour with the Astros and retired at the end of the 2007 season. Now he's ready to embrace a new role as coach of his son Conor's baseball team at St. Thomas High School in Houston.
It took Mike Piazza a little longer to come to grips with reality. Last week Piazza announced his retirement at age 39 and issued a statement thanking everyone who helped make his 19-year career a success.
"I walk away with no regrets," Piazza said. "I knew this day was coming, and over the last two years, I started to make my peace with it."
Piazza has lots of company. Over the past few months, Shawn Green, Ryan Klesko and Julio Franco announced their departure from the game. And on Sunday, Mike Lieberthal will sign a one-day contract, throw out the ceremonial first pitch and officially hang it up as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Meanwhile, lots of other veterans remain unemployed but have refrained from formally calling it quits. While some agents privately wonder about collusion -- and the Players Association raises concerns about Barry Bonds' lack of opportunities -- the older generation has been steamrolled by the rush toward more youthful, cost-efficient talent.
"You can definitely see baseball pushing toward the younger group of players,'' said Jeff Cirillo, whose career apparently ended when he failed to receive an offer this winter. "If you're a general manager, you're like, 'Why would I pay 'X' amount of dollars [to a veteran] when I have this guy I've been developing the whole time?'"
Nevertheless, isn't it proper etiquette to give the geezers a nod on their way out the door? This week's installment of "Starting 9" catches up with some familiar faces who've drifted from the scene without saying goodbye -- and one or two who might have another "hello" still left in them.
For the sake of equal time, we've left Bonds and Roger Clemens off our list. Chances are you'll see their names a lot in the coming months -- for reasons other than baseball.
Sammy Sosa (609 home runs in 18 seasons)
Sosa had a productive season with Texas last year, that .311 on-base percentage notwithstanding. He hit 21 homers and drove in 92 runs in 412 at-bats, and posted a 1.024 OPS against left-handers.
But the Rangers decided to go in a different direction, and with the exception of a flimsy Kansas City Royals rumor here and there, Sosa wasn't much of a Hot Stove League presence. According to published reports, Sosa will retire from baseball after the next World Baseball Classic in March 2009.
Sosa is involved in charitable work and a variety of business interests in his native Dominican Republic. He travels extensively and is close friends with Dominican president Leonel Fernandez Reyna.
"Sammy's living his life,'' Adam Katz, Sosa's agent, said. "He keeps himself very busy.''
If Sosa is indeed finished, he could join Clemens, Bonds, Biggio and Piazza on the mother of all Hall of Fame ballots five years from now.
Kenny Lofton (2,428 career hits, 622 stolen bases)
No player has been more publicly adamant that he belongs in a big league lineup than Lofton, who hit .296 in 136 games for Texas and Cleveland last season.
Tampa Bay and Cincinnati expressed interest in Lofton this spring, but the money and other assurances failed to meet Lofton's expectations, so he took a pass. He recently shared his disappointment in an interview with Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
"The thing that makes me frustrated is I did my job last year," Lofton said. "I proved myself at 40 that I was better than a lot of guys who were 25. But I can't get a job.
"Everybody says, 'Why doesn't anybody sign Barry?' I say, 'Why doesn't anybody sign Kenny?'"
In front office circles, the consensus is that Lofton would already be with a club if he had been a little less choosy. He just might resurface yet. Jake Peavy recently made a pitch for the Padres to sign him, and if Jim Edmonds continues to flounder with the Cubs, Lofton could be the next left-handed-hitting center fielder du jour in Chicago.
Reggie Sanders (305 homers, 304 stolen bases in 17 seasons)
Sanders, like Lofton, is in a holding pattern. He was hoping for a call from a West Coast club -- ideally, the Dodgers or Padres -- and auditioned with ESPN in January. None of those opportunities worked out, so he went home to suburban Phoenix. Now Sanders is doing some studio analysis for the Arizona Diamondbacks and staying fit with the help of a personal trainer.
"Reggie works out every day,'' said his agent, Mike Powers. "He's like a machine.''
Powers recently found a home for Armando Benitez in Toronto, and he's hoping that patience eventually pays off with Sanders. If a contending team loses an outfielder to injury or is in a bind this summer, Sanders is out there waiting as the consummate, 40-year-old pro. But the window of opportunity gets narrower every day.
In the meantime, Sanders doesn't have to worry about boredom. He's married with four daughters, ages 4 through 15.
"I keep telling Reggie, the testosterone in that house is way too low,'' Powers said, laughing.
Jeff Cirillo (1,598 hits, a .296 career average)
Cirillo set his sights on two possible landing places over the winter: Either he was going to re-sign with the Diamondbacks or return to Milwaukee for a third tour with the Brewers.
Cirillo flew to Arizona for a personal visit with Brewers GM Doug Melvin in spring training and sensed the dynamic was different when he had to sit downstairs and wait by the receptionist's desk. Then he went upstairs, and Melvin politely and professionally told him there wasn't a fit.
"When you don't get your phone calls or e-mails returned, you know it's not going to happen," Cirillo said. "But I needed to hear it for myself. That walk [to Melvin's office] was very uncomfortable. I felt like a cow being led to slaughter."
Cirillo is doing some studio analysis for the Brewers and recently traveled to London to take part in Major League Baseball alumni clinics. He plays golf and participates in a men's basketball league, and is part of a group that's buying a team in the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League. George and Bobby Brett recently bought the Bellingham Bells in the WCCBL.
Cirillo refuses to use the word "retired'' as a matter of principle. He plans to go out fighting "like an alley cat."
"There are two different psyches on this thing," Cirillo said. "One is the guy who's able to end his career and say, 'You know what? I gave everything I got. This is my closure, this is my final curtain, and I'm retiring.'
"Then there are guys like me who always had to scrap for everything we got. I'm not going to give in because I didn't retire. Baseball retired me."
Royce Clayton (1,904 hits, 231 stolen bases in 17 seasons)
Clayton was playing in the same group with Kenny Lofton at Ronnie Lott's charity golf tournament at Pebble Beach two weeks ago when they basked in the view and decided this new chapter of their lives wasn't so bad.
"Kenny and I said, 'This is great.' But if the right situation came along, both of us would strongly consider coming back and strapping it on," Clayton said. "That's just part of our makeup."
But while Lofton still wants desperately to play, Clayton has already begun the transition to a new and exciting life as a budding entrepreneur.
Clayton is the founder of a new private bank in Scottsdale, Ariz., and owns a real estate development company. He's involved in a film-making venture and has started a business called "Global Genius" that's designed to "brand" athletes by partnering them with growing companies. Angels outfielder Torii Hunter is an early client.
Clayton hit .246 in 77 games last season but went out in style. He made a September cameo with the Red Sox and earned a ring as a member of Boston's 2007 world championship club.
"I couldn't imagine a better scenario than that," he said.
Steve Finley (304 homers, 320 stolen bases, five Gold Gloves)
Finley, 43, is adamantly opposed to using the "R" word because he's convinced he can still play at a high level. He's a fitness freak and still checks in at his old playing weight of 190 pounds.
"I have a hard time putting that 'retired' in front of my name because I still feel good," Finley said. "I still feel like I have a lot left in my tank."
It's tough finding a general manager who shares that opinion. Colorado released Finley last summer after he hit .181 in 94 at-bats, and nobody picked him up. Finley traveled to the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., to plead his case with teams, but found no takers. There were some rumblings that the Padres might invite him to their Cactus League camp, but that scenario failed to materialize.
This spring, Finley threw batting practice, shagged balls and helped coach the baseball team at San Diego's Francis Parker High, where his son, Austin, made the varsity as starting center fielder at age 14.
"He's holding his own," Finley said. "He catches everything that's hit to him."
While Finley waits for the phone to ring, he's branching into different avenues. He's a partner in Pasquale's of Del Mar, an Italian restaurant that's scheduled to open in July, and will consider broadcasting down the road.
Freddy Garcia (117-76 record in nine seasons)
Garcia hasn't passed from the scene. He's simply rehabbing on his way back to the bigs.
After giving the Philadelphia Phillies one win for their $10 million investment last season, Garcia underwent shoulder surgery in August. Rather than go shopping for a Jon Lieber-type, low-base, high-incentive contract, Garcia's agent, Peter Greenberg, wanted the pitcher to get healthy before taking him back on the market as a free agent.
Garcia is working with a personal trainer at his home in Miami and recently began throwing off a mound. If all goes according to plan, he could be ready for an audition in July, a minor league rehab in August and a big league cameo in September.
"It's pretty slim pickings on the trade market," Greenberg said, "so as long as Freddy is healthy, there should be interest. Even if he's 80 to 90 percent, that's better than most pitchers at 100 percent."
Garcia visited the Mets and Red Sox in spring training, and the Yankees and Tigers will probably be lurking if he can contribute down the stretch. If Sidney Ponson could find new life in the Texas Rangers rotation, it's hard to believe Garcia won't find a job.
David Wells (a 239-157 record over 21 seasons)
Boomer snagged a headline recently when the Yankees' pitching problems began to mount. Hank Steinbrenner tossed his name out as a possibility, the New York Post called for a reaction and Wells allowed that sure, he'd love to give New York a final fling.
Nothing came of the speculation, and realistically, it's not going to happen. Wells has paid more attention to his diet and lifestyle since being diagnosed with diabetes, but he just turned 45 and will never be known as a monument to conditioning.
"David would still love to pitch," said his agent, Gregg Clifton. "We're keeping our fingers crossed every day. But obviously as time goes on, I have to think we're not going to get a get phone call."
So what's on the horizon? Wells is an avid golfer and hunter, and owns a 1,300-acre ranch in Michigan with close friend Kirk Gibson. He recently appeared on Fox's "Best Damned Sports Show Period,'' and Clifton thinks he could easily transition into broadcasting or even managing.
"Not only is David a historian of the game, he knows baseball from a tactical point of view," Clifton said.
And just imagine how entertaining his postgame news conferences would be.
Damian Miller (834 hits in 11 big league seasons)
Miller, who won a World Series ring with Arizona in 2001 and caught a 20-strikeout game by Randy Johnson, felt fortunate to spend the past three seasons playing for his home-state Milwaukee Brewers. He continues to live in Wisconsin, where he keeps busy coaching youth soccer, hunting wild turkey and hanging out with the kids.
During a speech to the Wisconsin Associated Press Sports Editors in early May, Miller revealed that the Yankees and Padres both called recently to inquire about his services when they were desperate for catching help. He politely said no.
"That itch is still there, that competitive itch," Miller said. "I just don't want to deal with the other stuff anymore. I don't want to go find an apartment, drive to the airport, fly to another hotel and order room service."
Miller has made it clear that if he's going to play again, it would be for the Brewers and the Brewers only. But unless he develops a sudden aptitude for closing games, the chances of a reunion are remote.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.