480 baseballs, 200 days

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

On a rainy day at North Loop Dodge in Tarrant County, a car salesman walks in with two huge bags from Sports Town.

"Wanna baseball?" he asks the two people in the repair waiting room who are watching the episode of "Family Affair" where Mr. French almost has to marry a woman from Lebanon. There are no takers, as the bored viewers remain intent on Uncle Bill's resolve to thwart his butler's nuptials.

There are 480 baseballs, to be exact. And all are to carry the autograph of Rangers' second baseman, Jeff Frye, who is on the scene supplementing his income during the strike by working at this car dealership. Given the plethora of cowhide, they apparently expect the strike to go on for some time.

Jeff Frye is both grateful and bored at this job. He would rather be in Florida, drawing walks instead of customers. But this is spring-training reality for many striking major league ballplayers.

In the morning, Frye endures Dallas-Fort Worth rush hour with all the other people who sit at desks; on this gloomy day of sanded bridges and freezing spit, he is driving a big bad-ass Dodge loaner truck with running boards.

In his fantasy, he is in a row of real Big-Leaguers on a spring-training field in Florida. They are across from another line of real Big Leaguers. And they throw just enough out of unison to create the rhythmic leather popping sound synonymous with the spring. There is a man on a riding mower cutting checkerboards into the Port Charlotte outfield and a tan line is appearing a few inches above this second baseman's elbow.

In reality, Jeff Frye is working at a job. Not a hard one, really--just not the one he's been planning for since he was four. "I have not hit since the team locked me out," he says. "I work out every day, but I have not hit once."

And he admits to those nagging fears, just like a writer who doesn't write for six months, or a musician who does not play. There is that pocket of doubt which wonders just how long it will be before he hits--and whether he will be able to do it as well.

There is an un-Frye-like listlessness in his speech these days. It is the oral lethargy of mild depression and sadness.

Instead of a ballpark, Frye's first stop on this Thursday is 10:30 a.m. at a north Tarrant County elementary school. Frye comes here a few days a week as a "community liaison" for the dealership. On this day, he plays football with the boys and talkswith some handicapped kids while they eat lunch. Some ask about the strike. Some ask why there is no baseball.

From there, it is on to the Chamber of Commerce luncheon where grownups ask him about the strike. Frye answers politely. Everyone even remotely associated with the game is sick to death of the questions by now. There are no good answers.

Back at the dealership, his job is to stand in the lobby. Yes, stand, like a celebrity greeter at some Atlantic City Casino. "You know people are usually older when they do this," he muses.

And washed up--not 28-year-olds still struggling to make their mark.
No one comes by this day. The weather is bad. The baseballs sit untouched. Jeff stands on the dealership floor surrounded by nothing but big glass windows and the view beyond, which only serves to remind him every minute of where he is not.

He asks the receptionist what she and her boyfriend bowled last night.
"Oh, that's something else--I bowl now," he says.
There is extra time now and then, and bowling is a great escape. He goes with some nonballplayer buddies to Triangle Bowl for league games once a week. He averages 189. "We don't have to wear those uniforms or anything," he adds, fending off my expression, which said I was thinking about Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden.

In the afternoon, Frye usually works out at Get-Fit gym. But today is so nasty he'll just go home to his Arlington condo and get warm and wait for "SportsCenter" at 10:30 p.m.

Every day revolves in some way around 10:30 p.m., when he turns on ESPN for the final word of the day on the strike.

Just hoping, hoping, hoping.
"I don't want to have to wait until morning to read the paper. This is something I have trained to do my whole life. I'll definitely stand by the union. But if this goes on and on, you won't even see me being in a PR position because nobody will want me as a PR person--because I'm not a ballplayer anymore."

Right now, the calls are still coming regularly. The Boy Scouts, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes--everyone expects two hours out of his life. "People think I'm sitting around not doing anything. I used to say yes to everything, but now I can't be out doing something for two hours, for nothing, when I could be in here making money.

"You tell them you can't, and they want to know, 'well, when can you?' Then you go and when you get done, it's 'well, thank you.' Sometimes it doesn't seem like people even appreciate it. I went to a junior high, and the kids were so rude, I had to leave."

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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