BRADENTON, Fla. — To get a close-up glimpse of baseball’s nuclear winter, the ticket for admission was security clearance with the guard shack at IMG Academy, the sprawling, multi-sport complex that’s tucked away behind fences and forestry, about a half-hour drive south from Tropicana Field on I-275.
The facility is spectacular. Tennis courts, football fields, a driving range — every inch groomed, polished and painted with precision. The kind of place where dreams are born, raised and then unleashed on to the world. What transpired at IMG’s baseball stadium during an unusual 28-day period this year, however, felt like the death throes of that process, where the boundaries of hope were ruthlessly squeezed, if not suffocated altogether.
That was the grim reality a few dozen unsigned free agents faced when they showed up last month at the spring training camp arranged by the MLB Players Association. The number was always changing, according to Bo Porter, the former Astros manager who was in charge of running the camp. Each morning, Porter would check to see who planned on suiting up, right down to the final session, which was Friday.
In this case, the fewer, the better, because Porter’s job was to supervise a place that no one wanted to exist. For all the nasty rhetoric between commissioner Rob Manfred, union chief Tony Clark, the agents and the players, this near-empty baseball stadium, populated by unemployed athletes in black uniforms, was a postcard from the apocalypse.
“Is it something that you want to see happen? Obviously no,” Porter said. “We would rather all these guys be signed and we not have to have camps like this. But I think it also showed the lengths at which the Players Association is willing to go through to provide for its players when they have a need.”
Despite the unfortunate circumstances, and the relatively short time frame, Clark’s cabinet was able to simulate the spring-training experience for the free agents that did choose to attend. Porter said he was asked to pull the whole operation together in roughly a week, which included assembling a staff, finding a baseball facility and also securing temporary housing in nearby Sarasota. Turns out, the IMG site was the perfect location for an unenviable mission, and more or less, it did serve the intended purpose.
A handful of free agents were signed out of this camp, including the Yankees’ Adam Lind, the Blue Jays’ Tyler Clippard and the Tigers’ Jarrod Saltalamacchia. While some of Scott Boras’ clients were among the biggest holdouts this winter, they did not attend the MLBPA camp, and a number of them agreed to deals after spring training already was underway. Eric Hosmer inked an eight-year, $144-million deal with the Padres, but on Thursday, Mike Moustakas settled for a reported one-year contract worth a guaranteed $5.5 million (plus another $2.2 million in performance bonuses) to return to the Royals.
If that could happen to Moustakas — who turned down KC’s $17.4-million qualifying offer after hitting 38 homers — what was the message to any of the older, and less accomplished MLB veterans trying to hook on with a club this year for anything more than a minor-league contract? The past few months were fraught with cautionary tales. The Yankees brought in Lind on a minor-league deal as cheap insurance at first base because it simply made too much economic sense not to. And Lind, for his part, really had no choice but to take whatever someone was willing to give him.
“The way this winter worked out,” said Lind, who hit .303 with 14 homers in 116 games last season for the Nationals, “I’m just happy to have a job.”
Count Lind among the lucky ones, as crazy as that sounds. At least he’s wearing a major-league uniform for now, and playing in actual spring-training games. That’s not what was going down at IMG on the second-to-last day of the camp’s existence. With temperatures barely getting into the 60s, and a nasty wind swirling, players such as Omar Infante, Emilio Bonifacio, Chris Colabello and Luke Scott battled a pitching staff that included Phil Coke and Alfredo Simon.
Earlier in the month, there were a few exhibition games set up, including two with Japan Railway East, a team from the industrial league that also was training at the IMG complex. Those games provided some structure, against players in different uniforms. On Thursday, the scrimmage was more loosely organized, with positions up for grabs. During one of the breaks between innings, someone yelled out, “Who’s in left?” Colabello was determined to grab an infield spot, but when second base was occupied, he had to trot out to centerfield instead.
Two police officers stood guard not far from the first-base dugout, but there were very few spectators to keep an eye on. Three to be exact. Two scouts behind the backstop — one with a radar gun — and a reporter. A team of high-schoolers worked out on an adjacent field. As much as the Players Association tried to recreate the spring-training experience, the desolation of it all made the activity somewhat depressing to watch, in stark contrast to the Grapefruit League ballparks buzzing with life throughout Florida and Arizona.
“There’s some guys taking it better than others,” said Luke Scott, a nine-year veteran who last played in the majors in 2013 but manned first base during Thursday’s scrimmage. “Other guys are like, ‘What’s going on? Why are we sitting here? Why don’t we have a job?’ It’s been mixed attitudes, depending on the individual.”
Scott, at age 39, had his run. He played nine seasons for three teams, batted .258 with 135 home runs and earned a total of $21.7 million, according to baseball-reference.com. Scott was referring to the players that he’s spent the past few weeks talking to, blindsided by the abrupt freeze-out this winter. Everybody has their own theories on how baseball got here, but no workable solutions for fixing it in the short-term, as the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until 2021.
“There is a concern about what we’re seeing,” Clark said this week during a visit with the Mets in Port St. Lucie. “And the historic nature of what we’re seeing. When the players are questioning why aren’t the best 750 [players] on the field and the fans are questioning why they aren’t seeing the best 750, that’s not a conversation anyone wants to have.”
And yet those conversations have become the soundtrack of baseball this year, as commonplace as the crack of a bat. Now that the MLBPA’s operations at IMG have closed for the season, the complex is now left to the next wave of dreamers, headed toward an uncertain future that is nothing like the lucrative past they remember.
HAVE GLOVE, WILL TRAVEL
David Lennon ranks the top 10 unsigned free agents:
Player, Age, Position, Career earnings
1. Jake Arrieta, 32, RHP, $31.9M
2. Alex Cobb, 30, RHP, $13.2M
3. Neil Walker, 32, 2B, $45.7M
4. Greg Holland, 32, RHP, $19.9M
5. Brandon Moss, 34, OF/1B, $24.6M
6. Melky Cabrera, 33, OF, $70.6M
7. Jose Bautista, 37, OF, $103.8M
8. J.J. Hardy, 35 .... SS, $80.3M
9. Mark Reynolds, 34, 1B, $28.6M
10. Jayson Werth, 38, OF, $136.4M
Career earnings provided by baseball-reference.com.