‘Camp Job­less’ gets un­der­way in Florida for un­signed free agents

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Bob Night­en­gale

BRADEN­TON, Fla. – It’s the other spring train­ing camp, the one with play­ers wear­ing black T-shirts and shorts in­stead of team uni­forms, no fans in the stands, no au­to­graph seek­ers, no me­dia, not even a peanut ven­dor in sight.

It’s Camp Job­less, the play­ers are call­ing it, the loneli­est place in base­ball.

Here, on the pris­tine, 450-acre IMG cam­pus in Braden­ton is where 20 pro­fes­sional base­ball play­ers con­gre­gated Wed­nes­day morn­ing, be­hind guarded gates, be­hind se­cu­rity of­fi­cials stretched around the com­pound and, per­haps more im­por­tant, be­fore pre­cious few prob­ing eyes.

This is where no­body wants to be, and the Ma­jor League Base­ball Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion doesn’t want you to see them. They closed their spring site to the me­dia, agents and even base­ball ex­ec­u­tives, with one Amer­i­can League spe­cial as­sis­tant to the gen­eral man­ager kicked off the prop­erty.

This is where you’ll find vet­eran re­liev­ers Tyler Clip­pard and Tom Gorze­lanny, who have com­bined for 23 years in the big leagues, still look­ing for work. This is where vet­eran catcher Jar­rod Sal­ta­la­mac­chia, who has played for seven ma­jor league teams and won a World Se­ries ti­tle with the 2013 Bos­ton Red Sox, is still seek­ing em­ploy­ment. This is where vet­eran out­field­ers Nolan Reimold and Ale­jan­dro de Aza were hit­ting and play­ing catch, with vet­eran in­fielder Chris John­son and 11-year pitcher Dono­van Hand here, too.

“We’re so grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity to be here,” Hand told USA TO­DAY in the lobby of the play­ers ho­tel near the Sara­sota air­port. “But at the same time, no­body wants to be here. No­body. We all want to be with af­fil­i­ated teams.

“A lot of guys don’t un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing and re­ally won­der if we’ll ever know.

“Guys are very con­fused right now.” Tony Clark, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the union, flew into town to meet with the play­ers Wed­nes­day morn­ing, talk­ing to many of them in­di­vid­u­ally, try­ing to calm their fears and frus­tra­tion.

It’s the first camp the union has staged since the spring of 1995, after the work stop­page, and Clark hopes this doesn’t be­come an an­nual af­fair, with about 80 free agents re­main­ing un­signed.

“The re­sponse was pos­i­tive de­spite the cir­cum­stances,” Clark said. “I be- lieve their state of mind comes from their knowl­edge that they can still play and can help a team win.”

The play­ers who spoke to USA TO­DAY in­deed were grate­ful for Clark’s ap­pear­ance. Clark let them know they were free to talk to the me­dia, and ex­press their feel­ings, but to try to keep the un­cer­tainty from be­com­ing a need­less bur­den.

“Tony told us there’s go­ing to be a lot of dis­trac­tions,” said Hand, who drove 10 hours in his pickup truck from his Red Bay, Ala., home. “He told us, ‘Don’t worry about that. You seize the op­por­tu­nity. We want you to be ready when teams call.’ ”

Still, with a closed camp, there was a mixed mes­sage sent Wed­nes­day be­tween the 9:15 a.m. start time and its noon con­clu­sion. The Amer­i­can League ex­ec­u­tive was es­corted out, leaving an­other high-ranking team ex­ec­u­tive miffed.

“It’s crazy they wouldn’t want teams to lay eyes on them,” he said.

Bo Porter, the for­mer Hous­ton Astros man­ager and At­lanta Braves ex­ec­u­tive who’s run­ning the camp, called it a sim­ple mis­un­der­stand­ing. This isn’t a try­out camp, Porter said. It’s a camp for play­ers to be ready for the reg­u­lar sea­son. If a team wants to see a spe­cific player in a work­out, all it has to do is call.

“I made this point to the play­ers,” Porter said, “we will not stop a team that wants to specif­i­cally look at a player. If you’re com­ing for a pur­pose and are go­ing to help the process of hav­ing one of these guys signed, then that wish will be ac­com­mo­dated.”

While there were more star coaches on the field than play­ers on the camp’s first day, with the likes of Tom Gor­don, Chris Cham­b­liss, Brian Jor­dan and Dmitri Young lend­ing their ex­per­tise, the union is ex­pect­ing more play­ers to start ar­riv­ing within a week. Sure, maybe not the stars the likes of Jake Ar­ri­eta, Eric Hos­mer and J.D. Martinez, who are ex­pected to sign con­tracts worth more than $100 mil­lion, but others who sim­ply aren’t get­ting any of­fers.

“I’ve al­ready had 10 guys text me ask­ing how it is,” said Hand, who left his wife, 3-year-old, and 5-month-old twins back home. “I would think more guys would start com­ing when they hear about it. ...

“Teams used to call dur­ing the win­ter and of­fer a mi­nor league con­tract with a ma­jor league in­vite.

“This year, noth­ing. No one’s even of­fered a time­line when some­thing might hap­pen. So what’s changed?”

Hand, 31, who pitched last sea­son for the New York Mets mi­nor league af­fil­i­ates at Class AA Bing­ham­ton and AAA Las Ve­gas, re­al­izes that fans won’t have sym­pa­thy for play­ers still seek­ing deals worth $200 mil­lion or eight-year con­tracts.

Yet how about the guys who sim­ply want an op­por­tu­nity to keep play­ing, al­low­ing teams to eval­u­ate their per­for­mance dur­ing the spring, in­stead of sim­ply giv­ing up on them with­out a phone call?

“Most of the guys here like my­self just want a chance to play base­ball,” Hand said. “It’s not about money. Just an op­por­tu­nity. ...

“Is that too much to ask?”

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