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HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The Homestead Sports Complex, situated along the highway that leads to the Florida Keys, just might be the perfect location for the Major League Baseball Players Association three-week free agent training camp.

Baseball can't go much farther south than this.

The eight-month baseball strike is over, but the financial damage to the industry -- estimated at more than $800 million -- has diminished the market for veteran players and created a free agent surplus that has forced the union to open a training facility for the guys who were left behind when regular camps reopened earlier this week.

It's enough to make you wonder if the players really came out on top when a federal court injunction made it possible for them to return to work and play the 1995 season under the rules of the previous labor agreement. "If this is victory," said unemployed infielder Randy Velarde, "I'd sure hate to see what defeat looks like."

Velarde made more than $1 million last year with the New York Yankees. He may be fortunate to get $200,000 plus incentives this year. Former World Series MVP Dave Stewart made $4.5 million last year pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays. The best base salary he has been offered so far is one-tenth of that. With just 17 days remaining until the regular season begins, there isn't much time to haggle.

"I think we all kind of knew the money wasn't going to be the same this year," said former Mets and Marlins outfielder Dave Magadan. "When you have time restraints like this, it's tough to negotiate a contract."

It'll be even tougher starting today. The deadline for tendering contracts to players eligible for salary arbitration passed last night and added to the large group of free agents.

"We're in a difficult situation, no doubt about it," said Stewart, who is coming off a disappointing 1994 season. "Our agents have told us that this is going to be a tough time."

The union has sought to make it easier by providing a site where players can get ready for Opening Day while they wait to be signed. There were 28 players present for the first full workout, but the total number of participants could grow to triple figures in the next few days. If not for a more relaxed dress code, it would look no different from any other spring training camp.

It is a great environment. The spacious Homestead complex was built as a spring training headquarters for the Cleveland Indians, but they backed out of the deal when Hurricane Andrew ravaged the area. It is a state-of-the-art facility that would be the envy of most major league clubs, but it has been empty for two years.

It should remain a great environment for a couple of weeks, but there is a darkness on the edge of camp. There is no guarantee that any of the players who have come here will leave with a major league contract, which means that this could become a very unhappy place.

"You don't want to be in that situation," said former Orioles center fielder Mike Devereaux, who was one of the first players to arrive in camp yesterday. "I think when players start leaving, it will start to get a little anxious around here."

This is spring training in reverse. In a normal camp, all of the fringe players hope that they still will be around on Opening Day. Here, that's what everyone is afraid of.

"There will be a lot of concern," said former Oakland A's manager Jackie Moore, who took the job of manager/camp coordinator on a moment's notice. "I keep saying that I'm running this camp the same as any other camp, but there is a big difference. In the other camps, the players are signed. These players are not signed and they are concerned. They're human.

"It's a unique situation. If we're successful, we won't have anybody left here."

Perhaps third baseman Chris Sabo, another Oriole in exile, best captured the mixed feelings that most players brought along with their bats and gloves. Nice to be here, but not for very long.

"I don't think it will be negative, but there will be a lot of unhappy people," Sabo said. "That's just the way it is. Baseball is not forever. Some day, you have to shut it down, whether it's by your choice or the system's choice."

Sabo still is trying to figure out how the game got to this point. He struggled through a frustrating season with the Orioles last year, but that was nothing compared to the frustration of sitting at home in August, September and for five weeks of spring


"It's crazy," he said. "I don't understand it. Maybe I'm not smart enough, but I guess the lawyers weren't smart enough either. They didn't get it settled. I'm talking about both sides. It was like two little schoolchildren. I'm sure I'll be chastised by union people who know more than me, but common sense says let's get an agreement. Let's put our personal feelings aside and get it done."

Though the camp is one of the by-products of failed collective bargaining, it still stands as something of a triumph for the Major League Baseball Players Association. In just a matter of days, the union showed that it could put together a high-quality training program that rivals any of the established major league camps.

Of course, union officials didn't do it entirely from scratch. They already had contracted to use the Homestead complex as the training ground for a spring barnstorming tour. But the successful opening of free agent camp is just another example of the organizational strength of the players association.

One union administrator said yesterday that it is possible the MLBPA will run similar camps in the future if the number of unsigned players is large enough to warrant it.

"It feels really strange," said veteran third baseman Howard Johnson, "but it beats the alternative -- sitting at home and waiting. I think everybody who came here will benefit, both mentally and physically. It was tough waiting for this thing [the strike] to end. I think we all knew when it did end there would be an avalanche."

It will be a couple of weeks before the union can measure the success of the operation. The first day of workouts drew only light interest from fans and brought just one major league scout to the compound, which may have added to the air of uncertainty that already hangs over the camp. But the lack of interest was predictable on a day when major league players were required to report to camp at every other spring training location and there was no way of knowing who would be reporting to the union facility.

"I've had numerous calls from scouts wanting to know who is here and who is coming in," Moore said. "I think what happened was, this was a spur-of-the-moment thing and a lot of scouts already had their itineraries made up."

Moore is hoping to arrange enough split-squad exhibition games to give everybody adequate exposure in game action, but it has to be strange to manage a team where no one wants to stay around long enough to make the traveling squad.

"I just hope everybody gets out of here pretty quick," said former Oriole Mickey Tettleton. "That's on my mind, but the main thing right now is getting back on the field and knocking off some of the rust."

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