Camp Player

For those of you unfamiliar with the daily doings of big-league spring training, this players' camp at Homestead, Florida, is much like any other.

First, you may call it "camp" or "spring training," but never "training camp." That would be like calling a manager "coach."

Also, at this camp, originally set in motion for the top 150 or so players to go on a barnstorming tour during the strike, toast and jelly materializes between 7:30 and 10 a.m. For lunch there is Italian wedding soup or cold cuts, usually at the hands of a short little retired guy from Florida who has done this every spring since Ty Cobb was without sin. And there are writers and front office personnel and millionaires dragging in, hung over or just dead tired.

There are also the usual unread memos on the board from the offices of Major League Baseball, offering the same old reminders: don't smoke in uniform in front of the fans; the whole team must be in the dugout and on the top step during the National Anthem; no use of cellular phones in the clubhouse.

But at this camp, the last reminder is widely ignored: phone calls are what it's all about.

This "players camp" is where all baseball's unsigned free agents--more than 100 men caught without teams during the strike--have gone to work out. The coaching staff, which bears a distinctive Rangers refugee flavor, consists of guys who have lost their jobs in the last year. Ditto for the staff, trainers, and equipment managers.

These men--the ones holding the cell phones in their gloves--are here to get jobs. They are getting cranky and panicky because they have none, thanks to the way the strike made things fall. They are brokers in ballplayer drag, wheeling, dealing, looking to sell themselves to the highest bidder--and if not that, well, the only bidder. "This is such a weird phenomenon," says camp coordinator Tim Hamilton. "It's one like we've never seen before and will, I guess, never see again."

Here, there is no group goal--shoring up the team defense, giving the pitchers more runs to work with, or making it to the World Series. But there are a lot of people with the same individual goal: finding a job. And a coaching staff that will again be jobless when the boys of spring depart. "As you might guess, there is some tension in this camp," says Hamilton.

On the fields of Florida, the day's workouts end, and across the state, ballplayers straggle in, checking their mail and planning family buffets or titty bar du jour, depending on their evening preference. They eat some of that soup or pop open a beer as a stop-gap solution.

In Homestead, the soup is ready, and the nightlife, such that it is, is waiting. But none of that makes a damn bit of difference. Players rush straight from the field to the phones. "We aren't worried about the cellular phone rule here," says Jackie Moore. "Our goal is to get people hired."

That requires air time. As Tim and I speak, Eric Hanson is ignoring lunch and commandeering the next phone to see what his agent has generated since jelly and toast. By nightfall, he will be a member of the Boston Red Sox. "Each day, guys see guys leave and they wonder when it will be them that gets a team," says Moore, who lost his position as a Rangers coach in the purge carried out by new general manager Doug Melvin. Moore guesses you could call him the manager. He also guesses you could call it tense when another guy gets a contract and packs his bags. Is it kinda like kids at an orphanage watching through the windows when one goes off with his stuff to his new parents? "Yeah," he laughs. "Exactly like that." There are none of the usual jokes resulting from years in the trenches together--ranging from remarks about unique sexual habits to individual players' propensity for dropping the ground ball. "They're still ballplayers, so you know they joke," says Moore. "But it's not at all the same, not nearly as much.

"Mostly they talk about what an awful year it is to be a free agent. It's weird. It seems weirder the longer I stay here."

First thing in the morning, Moore spreads out his newspapers, plants his coffee cup to the right, and his channel changer on the left, with the TV on ESPN. "That's when I find out who I've still got from yesterday."

As the head counselor at Camp Player, Moore is managing a team which will never be a team. His troops are not trying to impress him, only the scouts who appear daily at the foot of this stage. They are not vying to be his fifth starter or first baseman. They are vying for employment with someone else. "They could say screw me," says Moore. "I have no authority over them. But they come out, get here on time, bust their butts."

No wonder. It's their butts that'll be in a sling if they don't get a contract soon.

It is a bad year to be a free agent, because no teams were able to make moves to sign players until the season was virtually at hand. That made it a bad year to get fired too.

"I'm a free agent also, I guess," notes Moore. "This is the first time in 39 years in the game, 29 of them coaching, that I wouldn't have been to spring training. I just do the best I can here and hope somebody remembers me down the line. I know if they don't, I'll be right back home in Arlington watching Optimist games."

During the strike, Moore was in Arlington, watching his little boys' Optimist games and landscaping the lawn--unemployed baseball people tend to fill a lot of voids with cow manure and railroad ties.

Hollow and depressed are adjectives he uses to describe life after the big Rangers purge. He knows how these free agents feel, the feeling of looking through the windows while all the other kids are out there having fun.

The dozen members of his coaching staff at free-agent camp are largely guys who have been with the Rangers organization, or were living in Arlington: including Marty Scott, fired farm director; Rich Billings, who made a front-office exit a while back; and Mike Jeffcoat, who was hoping to get picked up as a pitcher. "These players feel bonded by uncertainty," says Moore. "I guess we feel the same way."

Most of the players will probably end up with somebody. But for Moore and the rest of the dozen members of the coaching staff, after Camp Player ends and the season begins, so too will that brief interruption in baseball's most common depression--unemployment.

A guy can only stay happy watching so many Optimist games. Peat moss and compost can only fill so many voids in the landscape of a big-league life. "There's comfort here for us (coaches)," says Jackie Moore. "It's sort of like our own little fantasy camp.