Thursday, March 5, 2009
Familiar faces still chasing their dreams
By Jayson Stark
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The invitations never come in the mail. Never.
They don't show up in the e-mail, either, as a matter of fact. Or via Federal Express, special courier, UPS, fax, text or stuffed inside the Sunday newspaper.
You want to know the truth? There are no invitations. They don't exist. They're a myth. Kinda like the Loch Ness Monster. And that account formerly known as your retirement "nest egg."
But every winter, 30 major league baseball teams continue to perpetrate The Great Invitation Myth on an unsuspecting segment of the population known as
"People like Morgan Ensberg."
So it's time we expose those teams. Finally. Here we have people like Morgan Ensberg -- fine, upstanding, one-time All-Star third baseman that he is -- who just want to play baseball. Or, to be more precise, just want to keep playing baseball.
And because they no longer want much in life -- except a uniform, a locker and a chance to dig into the postgame baked-ziti spread -- they agree to sign minor league contracts that allegedly include the strangest provision in sports:
An "invitation" to spring training.
But the invitations never arrive. And no one tells them. No one warns them.
So people like Morgan Ensberg then have to sit around for weeks wondering about profound questions such as this:
If they do get that invitation, almost certainly enclosed in a lovely tinted envelope with ribbons and an equally lovely RSVP envelope inside, well, then what? Is it OK to show up in spring training empty-handed after someone has so graciously "invited" you?
"Should I bring, like, a Bundt cake?" Ensberg asked us the other day, still waiting for that invitation to arrive, even though he was two weeks into his spring training "invitation" with those Tampa Bay Rays.
Hey, that would be great, we told him. But did he have a Bundt cake pan?
"I could pick one up," he suggested, helpfully. "I could check out Williams Sonoma. I guarantee you they have them."
Yeah, no doubt. And that would be one more guarantee, by the way, than anyone has given Ensberg -- or the rest of this year's Invited to Spring Training All-Stars.
They're out there in uniform as we speak this spring, every one of them. They may be wearing a number that's normally associated with playing tight end for the Packers. But at least they have a number at all. And these days, that's a beautiful thing.
After all, it's been kind of a rough winter to be a free agent -- any kind of free agent. Or, at least, it's been a rough winter to be any kind of free agent who wasn't negotiating a $100 gazillion deal with the Yankees.
"You should really be doing a different story this year," suggested Rays coaching assistant Brian Anderson, one of the star attractions of last year's All-Invited to Spring Training Team. "Your story should be the All-Not-Invited team."
Hey, excellent point. The invitations for men like Ray Durham, Frank Thomas and Kenny Rogers definitely got lost in the mail this winter. Never even got delivered with postage due.
So now more than ever, employment is good. Even if it's employment by invitation only.
And because employment itself is such a godsend, this winter has given us one of the most bizarre crops of "invited" spring-training All-Stars ever.
Omar Vizquel? Andruw Jones? Eric Gagne? Kevin Millar?
You know it's a weird spring when guys like that have joined the non-roster portion of the baseball universe. Those four men made a combined $33.9 million last year. They're merely "invited" to spring training this year. Amazing.
Millar, currently hanging out in Toronto's camp, was especially intrigued by the fact that the contract he signed turned out not to be a Blue Jays contract at all. It was, at least technically, a deal with the Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League.
It's almost enough to make a man wonder whether he even wants to make the big league team this spring.
"This could be a tough call," Millar chuckled. "I was telling the guys, when [manager] Cito [Gaston] calls me in and says, 'You made the team,' I might have to say, 'Listen, I appreciate it, but I think I'm heading for Las Vegas. I might have to hang out at the Bellagio for a couple of months.'"
OK, not really. Just kidding. Why would this guy need to hit a casino? When you're an Invited to Spring Training All-Star, that's a big enough gamble for any man.
Then again, some of these men actually have nothing to lose. We're talking about people like Marcus Giles, Scott Williamson and Matt Clement. The Baseball Encyclopedia will tell you they all officially ceased to exist last year. Now they've all been reincarnated this spring through the miracle of spring training "invitations."
Hey, praise the small print.
Clement hasn't thrown a major league pitch in 33 months. Williamson hasn't thrown one in 21 months. But at least those two guys played minor league baseball last year, trying to grind their way back from the operating room.
Giles, on the other hand, didn't play anywhere, after getting released by the Rockies in spring training. He turned 30 years old six weeks later -- and thought he was done. Didn't even mind thinking he was done. At one point, he agreed to a Triple-A deal with the Dodgers, then un-agreed and headed right back into retirement.
"I really thought I'd lost my fire for the game," said the one-time Braves second-base dynamo. "I didn't want to disrespect the game and go play at half speed. It's not right for the game, and you're not going to be any good if you're playing at half speed.
"But you know what?" he said. "It ended up being a mistake."
He realized that, he said, while sitting in the stands at a Padres game in August, when his 5-year-old daughter, Arringtun, looked up and asked, "Daddy, why aren't you playing baseball anymore?"
She might just as well have asked him, "What's the largest city in Tunisia?" -- because it was a question he couldn't answer. So the more he thought about it, the more he got "this feeling -- like, I can't believe I left. Nobody wants to look in the rearview, but that's the reality of it. I can't believe I took a year off. But I did it. And now I'm ready to start my career over."
He's starting over in the clubhouse of the Philadelphia Phillies. He knows he's not there to steal Chase Utley's job. He's actually there, when you get right down to it, just in case Utley isn't healthy enough to start the season.
But at least it's a job. At least it's a chance. And that's all your Invited to Spring Training All-Stars know they have a right to ask for -- a chance. Even if it isn't a real good chance.
So by that standard, Matt Clement knows he's one of the luckiest invited players alive this spring. He's 34 years old. He hasn't thrown a pitch in a major league game since June 14, 2006, thanks to his friendly neighborhood shoulder surgeon. And his only goal this winter was to reconnect with his old pitching coach, Brad Arnsberg, in Toronto.
But next thing he knew, A.J. Burnett was bolting for the Bronx. Two more Blue Jays starters -- Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan -- were down with injuries. And all of a sudden, Clement wasn't just another name in the program anymore.
"Most rotations, 4½ out of five spots in the rotation are taken right now," he said. "Here, there's a real opportunity."
Whether Clement's shoulder has bounced back enough to allow him to grab that opportunity, it's too early in the spring to say. But when he looks around him, at least he sees a non-roster guy's dream scenario -- the right team, the right pitching coach, the right situation.
"I'm going to have some peace of mind with this whole thing," he said. "I'm not unrealistic at all. Believe me, when I know I'm not good enough, I'm done."
So this is his spring to find out, once and for all, just as it's Scott Williamson's spring to find out. And like Clement, Williamson can see he's in a place where they sure need pitchers who do what he does -- or what he once did, anyway.
That place is the Tigers. And their bullpen definitely has some openings. Asked if there was a spot for someone like Williamson, manager Jim Leyland laughed and said: "There's a spot for any good pitcher who throws strikes, makes good pitches and gets hitters out. Hell, there's 12 spots for pitchers like that."
Once, of course, that description fit Scott Williamson like a custom suit. But it's now six years since he was the closer in Cincinnati, and five years since he had a 1.26 ERA for the Red Sox before his elbow turned to capellini.
|Kevin Millar is hoping to continue his big-league career by winning an Opening Day roster spot in Blue Jays camp this spring.|
He's been through two Tommy John surgeries and one other elbow "clean-out." He had a 6.61 ERA in the International League last year. And now, at age 33, he's on his seventh team in the past 29 months.
So what is he doing here, wearing Flozell Adams' number (76) and trying to wriggle his way back into the big leagues?
"Because I wanted to go out on my terms," Scott Williamson said. "Not someone else's terms."
He tried to pitch a couple of different times in the minor leagues last season. But even though his arm was moving, nothing was coming out. So he decided it was time to head home, heal up and then give it one last shot, after reconstructing his delivery.
He feels great. But he has been given no promises. So how come he has never enjoyed baseball more in his life?
"I used to take a lot of it for granted," Williamson said. "I just played and played, and you expect to be in the big leagues. And then it was swiped away from me, and all of a sudden, I'm just sitting at home watching it. So I'm glad it happened, in a way. It's kind of a rebirth for me, to just go out and enjoy the game again the way I used to."
In some ways, it makes no sense to hear a man say he's glad in any way that his career turned into such a mess. But we totally understand. In fact, that's actually our favorite thing about the Invited to Spring Training All-Stars. They get it.
They don't know what's ahead. They know only that they're guaranteed to make every single bus ride to Viera. And they're more likely to get released than to make another All-Star team. But they get it. They love it. They appreciate it -- maybe more than they ever have in their careers.
"I walked in today at 7 o'clock in the morning and saw the dew on the outfield grass," Kevin Millar said. "And you know, man, there's nothing like a baseball field when no one's on it. It's like such a peaceful sight. You can't forget these times. I mean, my career is coming to an end. So I have to appreciate every day."
Morgan Ensberg knows the feeling. He's been a backup. He's been an All-Star in Houston. And by last summer, he was also a man hitting .203 in New York and .189 in Buffalo, and getting released.
But he found himself standing on a baseball field in Port Charlotte, Fla., on the first day of spring training, taking in the World Series team around him and the cloudless sky above. And if you take the time to savor those scenes, he said, "you remember why you play."
"I know the last two years have been miserable -- absolutely miserable," Ensberg said. "And I forgot about all the fun you have when you play."
He's charged up about the changes he has made in his swing -- changes he was always afraid to make because his stats and paycheck wouldn't let him. He's grateful for the lessons he learned. He's ecstatic that a team as talented and energizing as the Rays would invite him to camp. And he doesn't even care that the invitation never did arrive.
"Being here, I think that's a blessing," he said, "because it reminded me what baseball is supposed to be like. I don't think any of this happened by chance. I think I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be."
Really? Even though he forgot to bring that cake?
"Yep," said Morgan Ensberg. "Even though I forgot to bring a Bundt cake."
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 and online. Click here to order a copy.
Being here, I think that's a blessing, because it reminded me what baseball is supposed to be like. I don't think any of this happened by chance. I think I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.
-- Morgan Ensberg, in camp with Rays