The Old Homestead Home

By Murray Chass

February 1, 2009

With so many free agents still running around loose, maybe it’s time for the second coming of the Homestead Homies.

The first incarnation of the Homies came in 1995 when the Players Association conducted a spring training camp for unsigned free agents after the players returned to work following their nearly eight-month strike.

“I was a Homestead Homie,” Scott Sanderson said. “That was the name of our team. We had a pretty darn good team. We were thinking that if we were to put together a team and play some spring training games, we would have a pretty good team.”

Sanderson was a pitcher then. He’s an agent now, but he doesn’t represent any of the approximately 80 free agents who seek jobs but remained unsigned as the calendar turned to February, the month in which spring training starts. Just about the same number of free agents has signed, but the unsigned group is the largest at this juncture baseball has had since post-strike spring training in 1995.

Manny Ramirez heads the list of available players, joined by Ken Griffey Jr., Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera, Bobby Abreu, Ivan Rodriguez, Garret Anderson, Adam Dunn, Oliver Perez, Ben Sheets, Randy Wolf, Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine. Many more players continue to look for jobs.

Many players were looking for jobs when spring training began in 1995. It began because a Federal judge, Sonia Sotomayor, granted the National Labor Relations Board’s request for an injunction barring the owners from establishing new work rules unilaterally in the absence of a new collective bargaining agreement.

The players had said that they would end their strike if the N.L.R.B. got the injunction, and as soon as Judge Sotomayor issued her ruling March 31, the players scrambled to get to their spring camps.

The Players Association, looking ahead to the possibility of a strike-ending injunction, had begun planning a free-agent camp in December 1994 and invited more than 100 free agents to Homestead when the players ended their strike.

Fifty-seven players showed up for the unusual spring training. The union hired Jackie Moore, a veteran major league coach, to run the camp.

“The Players Association called me and asked if I would be interested in going to Homestead and coordinating the camp,” said Moore, who had completed a two-year term as a coach with the Texas Rangers. “It was a unique situation. In spring training you usually try to protect your players from other scouts and teams. Here we were trying to get guys jobs.”

Sanderson put it another way. “Usually in spring training,” the former pitcher said, “when you see someone packing up and leaving that’s a bad sign. That spring it was a good thing. It meant they got a job.”

The Homestead camp was located about 30 miles south of Miami. Built originally for the Cleveland Indians in 1991, the complex was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, six months before the Indians were scheduled to occupy it. An $8 million repair job made the facility fit again, and it was available for the union’s training camp.

“I think it turned out to be a wonderful idea,” Sanderson said. “It was certainly humbling to be there, but it was a place for players who had not signed to work out together and to get back in the spring training environment.  To be throwing off a mound to major league hitters and to major league catchers was great. It wasn’t nearly as nice as most spring training camps were, but the atmosphere wasn’t that much of a departure. We were all working hard to be ready when an opportunity came along.”

Players came and went every day. Fifty-seven in all attended the camp, leaving if and when they got a job. One scout showed up the first day, but eventually scouts from 13 teams scrutinized the players.

One day, Moore related, he noticed the scouts sitting in the stands and had an idea. “I went up and told them to come stand around the batting cage and get a good look at these guys. It confused them at first, but I was just trying to get guys out of there.”

There was enough traffic in and out of the camp, which began April 7 and ran for three weeks, that players had difficulty keeping up with the changing roster.

“That was kind of a fun thing,” Sanderson recalled. “You’re working out and someone comes in and cleans out their locker. Guys encouraged each other and were happy when a guy signed.”

Moore said after the workouts he would “go home at night and watch tv to see if any of them signed so I knew who to expect the next day. I had the roster on a clipboard and I’d mark off guys who had signed.”

“There were some sad faces,” Moore acknowledged. “But everyone was pulling for everyone else.”

Sanderson said the attitude of the players was generally good but added, “There were a couple guys who were mumbling and grumbling, but that was more because of their personality. Guys were serious when they were at the ball park, getting their work in.”

There was also “some head scratching going on,” he said, “because there were some players who thought they should have been signed.”

Sanderson said he was in the camp between a week and two weeks before he signed with the California Angels.  Mickey Tettleton signed with the Texas Rangers and hit 32 home runs for them that year. Erik Hanson signed with Boston and produced a 15-5 record. Todd Stottlemyre signed with the Athletics and had a 14-7 record with them.

Howard Johnson (Cubs), Dave Stewart (Athletics), Scott Fletcher (Tigers), Tom Foley (Expos) and Andy Van Slyke (Phillies) all signed while in the camp, but the season would be their last. In all, 42 of the 57 players who worked out in the camp signed. Among the players who did not were Mike Felder, Dan Pasqua, Craig Lefferts, Ricky Jordan and Lloyd McClendon, who six years later became the Pirates’ manager.

Bobby Witt was a one-day resident at the union’s camp for jobless men. He walked into camp on the second day, returned the $75-a-day expense money he had received on the first day, then left, heading north along the east coast of Florida to the Marlins’ camp in Melbourne.

“Congratulations, we’ll miss you,” Judy Heeter, a union official, said as he left.

On another day, Johnson sat in the clubhouse, looked around the room and said, “If you walked around the room, almost to a man, guys would say they’d rather not be here. It’s not the greatest thing in the world to be here.”

Before leaving for Arizona and the Athletics’ camp, Stottlemyre assessed his experience in the camp, saying, “It’s a little different than I expected because of the circumstances surrounding the game. You get six years in, and you know you’re going to be a free agent with the thought you’ll find out what the people around the league think about you. Then we get to this circumstance and here I am in Homestead.”

In another two weeks, though, some players may wish there were a Homestead this year. Moore, however said, “It’s something I will always remember, but I hope it never happens again, the situation that put me there.”

More Rangers Duty for Moore

The same Jackie Moore is back with Texas for his fourth term as a Rangers coach.

“It’s the Nolan Ryan factor,” the soon-to-be-70-year-old Moore said. “I was here the last year Nolan pitched.”

Ryan is the Rangers’ president. He finished his playing career with the Rangers in 1993, the first year of Moore’s third term as a Texas coach. Moore was Kevin Kennedy’s bench coach that season and the next one. In 1980 he coached under Pat Corrales, and from 1973 through 76 he coached with the Rangers under Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin and Frank Lucchesi. Ron Washington will be the sixth Texas manager Moore has worked for.

Moore’s link to Ryan goes beyond the 1993 season. For eight years Moore managed the Houston Astros’ minor league team at Round Rock, Tex., five years in the Class AA Texas League and three in the AAA Pacific Coast League. Ryan owns the Round Rock Express.

“I live in Arlington; that’s another plus for me,” said Moore, who was the Astros’ bench coach last year. “It worked out they needed a bench coach and I interviewed.”

Moore managed the Athletics from 1984 into the 1986 season and also has coached for the Rockies, the Brewers, the Blue Jays, the Expos and the Reds. He was the Reds’ bench coach when they were World Series champions in 1990.

Yankees Hitting 200 Again

Barring a trade for a middle to major player, the Yankees are in position to meet their off-season goal of entering the coming season with a lower payroll than they had when they began the 2008 season. The number, though, won’t send Commissioner Bud Selig into a celebration of cartwheels.

With 18 players signed of the 25 that are expected to be on the opening-day roster, the Yankees have a $198 million payroll. The seven unsigned players will earn less than $4 million, perhaps closer to $3 million, meaning the Yankees will be slightly over $200 million compared with $209 million a year ago.

Thanks to Andy Pettitte’s foolish holdout for more than the $10 million the Yankees offered him, the team’s payroll won’t be just a baseball’s throw from last year’s. Pettitte could have brought the 2009 payroll within $5 million of the 2008 figure. He could still make an impact on the season-ending payroll — $218 million last season – by earning an additional $6.5 million in bonuses based on innings pitched and roster time.

Then again, the Yankees could make a trading deadline trade and blow past that $218 million.

A New Game for the Owners?

As soon as the players ended their strike in 1995, the commissioner’s office clung to whatever consolation it could get. It issued a series of talking points for club executives, one of which concerned free agents.

“Without a collective bargaining agreement and crippled by strike-related losses,” the commissioner’s office advised executives to say, “clubs will be unable to offer huge new contracts to free agent players. In some cases, they won’t be able to sign free agents at all.”

The choice of language was not lost on the players’ side. “It sounds a little bit like collusion to me,” one agent said. Updating the talking point, substitute the phrase “with the economy the way it is,” for “without a collective bargaining agreement,” and you have the status of a significant number of free agents. In fact, it would come as no surprise if general managers had a talking-points memo from the commissioner’s office in their desk drawers.

Club officials have frequently cited the economy as the primary reason so many players have gone unsigned. It’s more likely clubs are using the economy as an excuse to leave veteran players hanging in no-job land. Instead of the collusion the owners have practiced in the past, they may be engaged in a different strategy this year.

If many veteran players remain unsigned, the next class of free agents, excluding the Sabathias and the Teixeiras, may get the message and sign contracts for much less money than they want, fearful that they otherwise will be left out in the cold. Owners have proved that no scheme is beneath them in their attempt to regain control over salaries short of attaining a payroll cap, which they know they can’t get.

The existing labor agreement may have three years to run, but it’s never too early for the owners to start laying the groundwork for a renewed effort to clamp down on players’ pay.

 

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