Hardly a day goes by at a baseball spring training complex without a fan doing a double-take.
Hey, there’s Gold Glove third baseman Eric Chavez taking grounders at first base on a back field. Yes, it is slugger Andruw Jones all alone in the batting cage. Wow, that’s one-time ace Mike Hampton pitching late in a game, long after the regulars headed for the showers.
It’s a roll call of former stars hoping to land any role at all.
Welcome to Camp Last Chance.
“We all enjoyed being at the top of our game and being one of the better players in the game,” Chavez said at the New York Yankees’ camp in Tampa, Fla. “You come out here and do what you can do, really. You let it all hang out and the type of player you are, it is what it is.”
Take a look this spring training and you’ll find a bunch of big leaguers giving it one more shot. There’s Bartolo Colon, Mark Prior, Chavez and Jones with the Yankees, Hampton with Arizona and Dontrelle Willis with Cincinnati. Garrett Atkins, Mike MacDougal, Jeff Suppan and Gabe Kapler are in camps, too.
Whether it’s because of injuries or age, these fan favorites have seen their skills diminish to the point where they are no longer in demand.
The offers of mad money are long gone, but the desire to compete is still there.
“Ever since I was little I wanted to play this game and I’m just not ready to give it up,” Hampton said in Scottsdale, Ariz. “This is what I do. I mean, I don’t do anything else.
So despite having just 10 wins in the last five years, the 38-year-old lefty who once signed a $121 million contract is giving it another try.
The Yankees have an unusually large group of cheap signees with a pedigree. Freddy Garcia is among the players they signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
The moves make sense. All have already handled the demands of stardom, making it more likely they will be able to withstand the scrutiny of the New York glare better than a rookie. The financial risk is low and there is no doubt of their talent — when healthy.
Between Colon, Garcia, Prior, Chavez and Jones, they have 16 Gold Gloves, 10 All-Star selections and one Cy Young Award. But only Jones’ contract is guaranteed, a modest one-year major league deal.
“You’re pulling for them. A lot of them had injuries. You hate to see that,” Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. “You just hope that they’re healthy and pull for them.”
Jones burst onto the baseball scene with the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series, hitting two homers in Game 1 against, yes, the Yankees as a 19-year-old. He hit 51 homers in 2005 and was runner-up in NL MVP voting. Three years later he went deep only three times in his one injury-ruined season with the Dodgers. Last year he had 19 homers for the White Sox but batted only .230.
Perhaps the best center fielder of his era, Jones won 10 straight Gold Gloves from 1998-2007.
“Deep in my mind I still thought I could play every day a little bit. I kept working out this offseason to get to that point again,” said Jones, who’s only 33. “You got to come into camp and show teams that you can do that.”
Chavez is also 33, right at the end of a player’s prime years. But five operations on his shoulder and back have taken from him the lightning-quick hands and rocket arm that earned him six Gold Gloves. Sitting in front of his locker, one spot away from Jones, his scars are visible for all to see.
On most days he can be found over at first base, taking grounders, getting tips from Gold Glover Mark Teixeira. He knows being a versatile backup is his best way to make the team, especially with Alex Rodriguez, who 2½ years older, locked in at third base.
Prior was an All-Star at 22, out of the big leagues at 26. He and Willis played prominent roles in the 2003 playoffs. Prior was four outs away from pitching the Cubs into the World Series when fan Steve Bartman got in the way of history. Willis and his Marlins went on the beat the Yankees in the World Series.
Only 30, Prior hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since 2006 because of right shoulder trouble.
“I understand the situation I’m coming into,” said Prior, who’s looking to land a spot in the Yankees’ bullpen. “I understand that, one, everybody is concerned about my health and, two, if he’s healthy what’s his stuff like. Those are two things I’ve got to go out and prove.”
Garcia and Colon have a very good chance of making an impact on the Yankees. The opportunity is there with the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation available.
Colon last pitched in the majors in 2009. He won just 14 games since going 21-8 with the Angels and winning the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, and he came into training camp admittedly well over his ideal weight. But the Yankees are impressed so far with his attitude.
“The bottom line is if you can pitch you can pitch,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “Weight only becomes an issue when you’re not doing well.”
The 35-year-old Garcia won a total of five games for the Phillies, Tigers and White Sox from 2007-09, all injury plagued. After rebounding with 12 wins for the White Sox last season, he felt he still had something to offer and accepted a minor league deal from the Yankees, setting aside any anger he had at not being offered a guaranteed contract.
“Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe they don’t think I can help them out,” Garcia said. “I don’t think about that. Right now I’m thinking, ‘Be 100 percent and win a spot in this rotation.'”
Girardi sees something in all of them, something that made them stars in the first place: an impressive work ethic.
“I think they’re determined to be as good as they can be,” Girardi said. “Now, where that lands them none of us really know because we know that before the injuries they were really talented.
“But I think they’re willing to put it all out there,” he said.
Colon was home in the Dominican Republic, his career almost over. Chavez said twice last year that if his body betrayed him again that he was going to retire. Prior was relegated to the independent leagues.
Why then are they putting themselves through it one more time?
“This is what I was born to do. I’m a baseball player,” Chavez said. “I’m not going to be able to do it a lot longer in life and I just want enjoy it and try to finish it out as best as I can.”
AP Sports Writer Bob Baum contributed to this report from Scottsdale, Ariz.