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Saturday, February 7, 2009
End could possibly be near for Durham

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

In early February, a switch-hitting second baseman's thoughts turn to loading the bags on the spring training equipment truck, sneaking in a few extra rounds in the batting cage to stay sharp, and kissing the wife and kids goodbye on the way to the airport for Florida or Arizona.

But this is not your garden variety spring, so Ray Durham sits at home in Charlotte, N.C., wondering about his future. Is he destined to spend this summer golfing, fishing, grilling out and watching his two kids play ball? Could this really be the end?

One prominent second baseman, Jeff Kent, has left the game of his own accord this winter. After 14 big league seasons and 2,054 hits, Durham might soon join him. He wants to play in 2009, but circumstances have left him at "50-50'" on the possibility of retirement.

"I'm ready to play, but if that doesn't come, I'm happy with retirement," Durham said. "I play the game because I love it. Sometimes it's not all about money. You want to be treated fairly, too."

As pitchers and catchers prepare to report to camps next week, the list of accomplished hitters in professional purgatory is stunning. Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, Orlando Hudson, Ken Griffey Jr., Garret Anderson, Jim Edmonds, Joe Crede, Pudge Rodriguez, Orlando Cabrera, Luis Gonzalez and, yes, Durham are among those in search of a bailout plan.

The reasons for the unemployment surge -- from the economic climate to a game-wide preference for younger players -- have been documented ad nauseam. Things are bad enough that Major League Baseball and the Players Association have considered setting up a spring training camp where wayward free agents can stay in shape and audition for clubs in need.

Still, that doesn't make the wait any easier for players who are balancing pride with a grim reality, and believe they've done enough not to have to beg for jobs.

"Even when I was in the minor leagues, I always said that I want to go out on my own terms," Durham said. "I didn't want to stay around if I couldn't continue to play at a high level. I wanted it to be my decision.

"That's the whole thing -- I haven't even had an offer to turn down this winter. If I had something to think about, I could at least weigh my options one way or another. I haven't even had anything to say 'no' to."

In light of Durham's performance in 2008, he has reason to be puzzled over the lack of interest. After a 2007 season so unproductive that many clubs figured he was finished, he's coming off a year that was extraordinary in several respects:

• Durham amassed 35 doubles in 370 at-bats with San Francisco and Milwaukee, joining Larry Walker of the 1994 Montreal Expos as only the second player in 67 years to produce 35 or more doubles in 400 or fewer at-bats.

• His .380 on base percentage tied him with Philadelphia's Chase Utley for best among big league second basemen in 2008.

• He hit .310 with a .905 on base-slugging percentage in "close and late" situations, and produced a .956 OPS when the Brewers were fighting for a playoff spot in September.

Durham's agent, Ed Setlik, prepared a 23-page document detailing his accomplishments and distributed it to front offices. While Hudson was allegedly scaring off second base suitors with his high asking price, Setlik told clubs that Durham would be willing to take a one-year deal with some deferred money. Durham also comes with no draft-pick strings attached for the club that signs him.

Nevertheless, Durham hasn't gotten a sniff. The only thing resembling interest came from the Cardinals, who called to inquire how he might feel about a backup role to Adam Kennedy at second base. But St. Louis never made a formal offer.

One by one, the other possibilities dried up. Cleveland decided to keep Asdrubal Cabrera at second and Jhonny Peralta at shortstop and trade for third baseman Mark DeRosa. Arizona signed Felipe Lopez for one year at $3.5 million. The White Sox plan to give prospect Chris Getz first crack at second base, and Milwaukee is sticking with Rickie Weeks.

I haven't even had an offer to turn down this winter. If I had something to think about, I could at least weigh my options one way or another. I haven't even had anything to say 'no' to.

-- Ray Durham

Setlik talked to both New York clubs, but the Yankees are looking for a bounce-back year from Robinson Cano, and the Mets are in no position to add a second baseman with Luis Castillo due $18 million over the next three seasons. If GM Omar Minaya were inclined to spend money on the position, the Mets would have made a run at Hudson.

At age 37, Durham isn't the athletic marvel he used to be. He hasn't stolen 20 bases in a season since 2002. And while he's relatively sure-handed in the field, he's below average at turning the double play and ranked 31st among second basemen in the Fielding Bible's plus-minus rankings in 2008.

But as one front office man observed, "You're buying a pretty good offensive player." Durham is a career .279 hitter from the right side, and .277 from the left. He's hit .278 at home and .277 on the road, and has a career .275 average before the All-Star break and a .280 mark after it. He's consistent to the point of mind-numbing.

"I know I'm biased, but I also know what I see," Setlik said. "Ray might have lost some of his physical edge, but I think he's got a lot of juice in the tank."

Durham has told his agent that he won't grovel for a job. He doesn't expect a salary approaching his $7.5 million in 2008, but he's also not interested in a minor league invite or the $800,000 utility infielder plan.

"We're willing to take a little bit of a haircut, but not a scalping," Setlik said.

As the wait persists, Durham works up a sweat each day at his home in North Carolina. He hits and throws, lifts weights and does speed and agility drills. He hasn't spoken with many out-of-work peers this winter, but former teammate Frank Thomas did call at one point to commiserate about the job market.

Durham has set no personal deadlines to hook on with a club, but concedes it would be difficult to arrive in camp in, say, early March and try to catch up. Regardless of what happens, he's more matter-of-fact than angry or bitter over MLB's new world order.

"Your mega-superstars are gonna get theirs regardless, and your lower-end guys are going to get theirs," Durham said. "It's the middle guys who are going to be left out. Right now teams would rather pick up a guy from A-ball or Double-A to fill a roster spot and save money. I've been around this game long enough to know that money talks."

Money has never spoken more forcefully or emphatically than in this desolate winter on the MLB free-agent market. With each uneventful day that passes, Durham and his fellow job-seekers are discovering just how little say they have in the matter.

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.