Spring Training is Serious for Many

Every day's sports "transactions" list is a story of hopes dashed. Light years removed from the heady world of agents, multi-yeared stratospheric contracts are the minutiae of sports under the dastardly heading of "released," "outrighted," or "designated for assignment."

Every player a star once and someplace gets a one way ticket home, a journey to tell your pals and supporters you couldn't cut it among other stars, the beginning of a new venture into the world of real work, a lunchpail, driving a UPS truck, going to an office every day - exactly the kind of thing the rest of us stiffs have to do to make a living, to put bread on the table and pay the bills.

For some, injury is the ticket out. Pitchers more than any other players in baseball, are prone to a physical purchase of a ticket home. Even though the wonders of modern day medicine have largely ended the old saw 'he threw his arm out', a lame arm of one sort or another is the difference between stardom with all its riches and a future of mediocrity someplace far removed from millions, adulation and a make believe world.

Kurt Ainsworth is such a pitcher. Will he survive his arm woes or is he on the slippery slope towards an everyday world like the rest of us.

Mental demons are another hurdle for kids on the bubble. There are plenty of pitchers who can literally throw a little round ball hard and fast. But where?

Sandy Koufax finally figured out how and now almost half a century later, he still is among the golden pantheons of the sports best.

Bill Bene, who threw just as hard, never did find control of his dynamic tosses and is forgotten by all but the most obscure of baseball historians.

There are any number of pitfalls that prevent good players from hanging on in baseball. Every kid from the Caribbean can hit a fastball (you cant walk of the islands) but as the old saw goes "momma, don't rent my room, they's throwing curveballs."

Some young players, who never ate a full or balanced meal in their young lives, eat themselves out of sport. Others use booze or other substances to give them courage and succumb to those demons. For others, it's the locker room Annies who turn their heads and end the dreams.

The inception of free agency allowed many players who formerly were stuck behind a great player and could never get free - all the ex-Dodgers minor league shortstops stuck behind Pee Wee Reese over two decades.

For every story of the next month and a half about Normar Garciaparra refinding the magical batting stroke that had Ted Williams claim Nomar would be the first hitter since 1941 to hit .400 over a season, there will be a footnote that a Chris Truby, once a promising big league third baseman, has been released.

For others it is the sound of father time. Pat Borders will be 43 and is still hanging around. Ditto 39-year-old Sandy Alomar Jr. Unless they are able this year or next to hang on as a coach someplace, they will be entering "our" world at an advanced age, hoping they have been wise enough to save a few bucks along the way.

Aaron Sele is a young man by our standards, but a greybeard in athlete's terms. Luck could buy him another year in a fantasy world and it just as easily could buy him a ticket home. Look at Scott Ericksen a year ago. An inexorable slide downhill to nowhere.

Oscar Robles came out of the nowhere of Mexico and young Willy Aybar came up from the minors in late August to have a wonderful first glance at the big leagues - but there is no guarantee either or both will see the big leagues this year. It may not be the difference between playing a kids game for money and fun and real work, but it is the difference between the big leagues and the minors.

And that can be the difference between living in the US and say Croatia.

Some of the losers will try to fight fate and go to the independent leagues to try to recapture lightning in a bottle, where the odds are not even quotable on succeeding. This is a very human drama and it will unfold every day in spring training.

Human decisions often become an important factor. A player, feeling overlooked for any one of a number of reasons, might pop off to the wrong person. Gone. A player might get used in the wrong situation as when Tommy Lasorda insisted on using John Wetteland who hadn't warmed up. Gone.

Baseball is a simple game. See the ball, hit the ball. But it simultaneously is enormously complex. Can the players perform? Today and regularly?

Young Tony Barron, once considered a five tool player, couldn't hit with two strikes. He hit .400 with no strikes, .250 with one strike and not at all after that. He blamed everybody - the pitcher, the curve, the umpire. Everybody but himself.

Consequently his time in the big leagues was counted in weeks. There are interesting cases with the Dodgers this year. Hee Sop Choi is one. As long as Nomar Garciaparra is healthy, Choi does not play. And Nomar doesn't really have to field good.

Remember first base is where you put the player awful anyplace else. Read that Steve Garvey. If a righthanded pinch-hitter is needed, there is Olmedo Saenz. So Choi is mostly reduced to being a left handed pinch hitter, one who is not a contact hitter. Will the Dodgers roster permit such an extravagance? The market elsewhere in the big leagues for Choi has largely evaporated. Choi knows he might wind up in Las Vegas. Can new hitting coach Eddie Murray do better for Choi than Tim Wallach did a year ago?

Joe Beimel and Brian Meadows are under the microscope. Signed mostly as Triple-A insurance in case one of the big league guys get hurt, they surely must or soon will see the younger, cheaper and much more talented arms of the legion of Dodgers minor league phenoms pressing them from the rear.

The veteran hurlers know their position and chances. For the "name" players with contracts and agents and locked up positions, spring training is a delightful time. The weather is better than almost anyplace else. There are people to attend to your every desire. Others to shield you from people you don't want to talk to. The traffic is leisurely, the meal money something us ordinary folks really cant imagine. For the chosen, the thing is to not get hurt.

But truth be known, of the hundred or more players in camp, less than 20 fall into this category. Maybe another 40 know what 2006 is likely to hold. But for many at the bottom of the depth charts, spring training is a treacherous time. Do something spectacular. Get somebody's attention. Hopefully in a good way. Don't mess up.

God, don't have me wind up in the Peoria or Santa Cruz unemployment office.