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