480 baseballs, 200 days

For Jeff Frye, North Loop Dodge is a long way from Port Charlotte

Last month Frye made the comment to a Star-Telegram reporter that he does not want people to perceive him as some rich guy with gold chains and fat cigars--that all ballplayers are not like that. He said he had considered getting a real job. And by February 19 he had one.

Some fans naturally bristled--the nerve of a baseball player complaining about money. Folks seem harder on ballplayers than other jocks, maybe because, as the shrinks say, baseball is a game we have all played, so we feel big leaguers should be like us. We feel jilted by the strike.

The truth is that some union guys, especially guys like Jeff Frye, have paid some hefty dues. They have not been in the bigs long enough to have the money to buy the estate in Colleyville and fill the garage with Lamborghinis.

Life has been as tough on Frye as it has been on most of us. He worked in a grocery store in high school. He was a gofer for carpenters one year during one minor-league offseason. During another he built pallets on the 8 p.m.-5 a.m. shift in a small barn in very rural Oklahoma. "You started at $100" a week, he recalls. "The most you could work up to was $175." Frye eventually got there.

Another winter he did maintenance work for a college, mowing lawns and scrubbing floors. He umpired softball games in Tulsa at $10 per nine innings, mediating between drunk fat guys with aluminum bats. He has worked slot machines in Vegas on a shift which ended at 2 a.m.--which he followed with two hours of weight work. His wife was up at 6 a.m., and the baby was awake by 8 a.m., which meant Jeff was awake, too. Vegas was an interesting place, and those jungle green floors in the Tropicana made a comfortable transition from outfield grass. "I liked that," he says. "That's something I wouldn't mind doing again."

Frye's voice has a gloomy realism reflecting the current buzz he says is running among his peers--that they may not play baseball in 1995.

Sometimes he wonders if they ever will.
The minor leagues and the winter jobs were depressing sometimes, as a guy wonders if he'll ever see the Big Show. But this is the gloomiest winter of his life.

"I am very depressed," he says. "The hardest part is the [negotiations] have taken us up and down so many times." He talks about a friend who has two weeks in the big leagues and is therefore stuck as part of the union. That player is also stuck with a divorce and child support and searching for a job to make a go of it.

Frye is also going through a divorce. He makes $40 an hour working about 20 hours a week part-time at the dealership; the courts have already spoken for much of it. He hasn't tried to reduce his child support.

How could this be happening, when it was all starting to go so well? "It's kind of like disbelief," he says. "After missing the whole of '93 [with an injury] people wrote me off. Then I was sent down last year and worked my way back."

When Frye came here he seemed so young and small, almost interchangeable with the ball boys. Now he is a baseball grownup. Just in the last three days, two kids at Rangers camp and the mom of a Seattle Mariner have called for his advice on whether to walk out of camp.

Playing in The Bigs is all he has ever wanted. And now his dreams are in shambles.

He knows the things he thinks owners should have done differently. When asked what players could have done differently, retrospect brings Donald Fehr to mind. "I'm displeased with our image," he says. "People see Fehr on TV. He looks so negative. He's so negative. It presents a negative image of the players.

"Maybe we could do without that. Of course Bud Selig gives the same impression."

Frye's right on both sides. Fehr seems the negative, self-centered pig; Selig, the bumbling, self-serving, small-market fool.

"Ever since I was this high, I've had a bat in my hand," he says, holding his hand as high as an office chair. "When I was an 8-year-old, my dream was to be in little league and join the Boys Club. Since I was eight years old."

He repeats the phrase, like someone rereading a sentence in a news article describing a particularly unbelievable bit of tragedy. The impact sinks visibly into his face. "Now my dream is to play again in the major leagues--with real players."

For now, he will stand on the dealership floor, shake the hands at lunch, bowl on Thursdays--and live for the hope that "SportsCenter" at the end of each day brings.

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