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There's no joy in Homestead as unwanted players strike out

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Thirty miles north on Florida's Turnpike, Joe Robbie Stadium is dressed for a party, but the festive atmosphere that surrounds tonight's belated opening of the 1995 major-league season does not extend to the Homestead Sports Complex.

There are too many people here who did not get an invitation.

This is where the Major League Baseball Players Association set up training camp for the scores of free agents who were left unsigned after baseball's eight-month work stoppage came to a sudden end. This is where spring training shifted into reverse . . . where the object of the game was to play your way off the team. Now it has turned into the village of the damned.

"It's kind of depressing," said manager Jackie Moore. "I have too many people here I'd like to see put a contract in their back pocket and get out of here. The camp has been a great idea. I think it has accomplished much of what we set out to accomplish, but our goal was to get everybody signed and close up early. There are too many players still unsigned. You just wonder, where are they going to go from here?"

Probably home. The large free agent surplus was a byproduct of the financially devastating labor dispute, which caused many cost-conscious teams to turn to organizational prospects -- and, in some cases, replacement players -- to fill the final spots on their major-league rosters. The union camp has served its purpose, sending 35 players back to work, but about 20 free agents will be present for tomorrow's final Homestead workout, and many more are at home waiting for the phone to ring.

"Nobody wants to be the last guy here," said former Orioles outfielder Lonnie Smith, who packed up and went home yesterday. "The guys who are here now probably feel a little bit down. A number of us know that this could be the end of the line."

That likely will be the case for Smith and veteran outfielders Lloyd McClendon and Glenn Wilson, all of whom indicated yesterday that they would soon make retirement announcements. There are players 10 years younger who cannot find work, so it isn't hard to see the writing on the clubhouse wall.

"I think reality is setting in for a lot of guys," said McClendon. "It's not a fun situation. It's like somebody dropping the hammer on you. You see them calling up scab players and there are guys down here with track records. But in the lingo, that's the juice. You just have to roll with the punches."

There are whispers that this is a sucker punch. That these free agents are being frozen out as retribution for an eight-month strike that cost the owners nearly $800 million in revenues. The New York Post recently dubbed the union training facility "Camp Collusion," but there is little hard evidence that the veteran players at Homestead are falling victim to anything more than normal market forces.

No matter how much some players in camp would like to believe otherwise, this is what life is like on the fringe of baseball's new economic order. It could be this way next year and every year after that until the game gets its financial house in order.

It may not be easy to accept, but some of these players have priced themselves out of the major leagues and some others -- outfielder Vince Coleman, for instance -- have simply worn out their welcome. They wonder. They chuckle nervously at the "Camp Quote of the Day" that someone posted in the locker room yesterday:

"Are we really this bad?"

It's nice to be wanted, but . . .

Right-hander Tim Belcher jumped up from his seat and strutted through the clubhouse waving a sheet of paper.

"I got an offer, I got an offer," he shouted, but it was apparent from his tone of voice that it was not quite what he had in mind.

It was a letter from former major-leaguer Dave LaPoint, &r; manager/general manager of the independent Adirondack Lumberjacks of the new Northeast League, inviting Belcher to join the club if he cannot find work anywhere else. The team, located in Glens Falls, N.Y., sent a similar letter to everyone else still at the camp.

"I would like you to know that we are aware that it has been tough finding a job this spring," the letter read. "If you are still without a job by June 1st, you are welcome to come to the Adirondacks where there are plenty of lakes, golfing, fishing, and more, in a comfortable small-town atmosphere."

Sounds nice, and the Northeast League has one thing Belcher won't find in the majors -- a salary cap.

The maximum player salary works out to about $11,000 a year. He could get far more than that to sign a Triple-A contract, but is trying hard to avoid a minor-league assignment.

"It has been an emotional roller coaster," Belcher said in a more serious moment. "It doesn't matter if you are a young guy like Steve Curry -- it's unbelieveable he doesn't have a job -- to the other end of the spectrum like Jay Howell, who has had a long career. I'm somewhere in the middle, but it definitely is an emotional roller coaster."

Howell and Belcher were teammates with the Los Angeles Dodgers a few years ago. They were reunited at the Homestead complex and have spent the past three weeks trying to make sense of a strange and unsettling situation.

"We're not delusional," Belcher said. "Jay is 39. If this is the end, it's certainly not the end of the world. It's a little different for me. The experts might hold out a little more hope for me to continue."

Belcher is 33. He had an awful year last year -- the losingest pitcher in the American League at 7-15 -- but he still has a winning career record (84-78) and a very respectable 3.69 lifetime ERA. He had shoulder surgery four years ago but was healthy enough in 1994 to rank among the league's hardest-working pitchers with 162 innings.

"I've got to believe that with 28-man rosters and most teams going with 12 or 13 pitchers, that there is room for some of the guys who are here," he said. "That's nearly 400 pitchers. You can't tell me that some of these guys aren't among the top 400 pitchers in baseball."

Strange justice

They aren't all thirtysomething fringe veterans. Former Texas Rangers prospect Dan Peltier is 26 years old and thought he had a future in the game. That's why he told the Rangers he would not play alongside strikebreakers this spring. Two weeks later, they told him to pack his bags, though no one will admit that his pro-union stance cost him a job.

"It's unfortunate all the way around," Peltier said. "They ask you to cross and you say no because you think you have a future, but if you say no, they won't let you have a future. To have that happen was pretty lousy."

Nevertheless, Peltier is planning to attend tonight's season opener between the Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers, even though he says it might be uncomfortable to be on the outside looking in.

"It's going to be tough," he said. "It's tough just watching ESPN and seeing everybody playing and knowing that you're not."

It's toughest on the young guys, of course, because they have not been around long enough to acquire any financial security. Lonnie Smith can go home to his four children and take advantage of the opportunity to make up for all the family time he missed during his lengthy major-league career. It's different if you have to cope with the uncertainty of starting a new career.

"You think of all those years when you were at spring training and you were worrying about whether you were going to be sent down to Triple-A," said journeyman pitcher Bruce Walton, who came to Homestead after he was released by the Colorado Rockies. "Relative to this, that looks pretty good right now.

"It will be strange to go home without a job. It hasn't really hit me yet. I don't think that it will. I've been hit so hard the last couple of months, I don't think I'd even feel it."

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