Major Leagues, Minor Men

Life Is a Perpetual State of Audition for Players on the Fringe

FORT LAUDERDALE—Mets vs. Orioles under the lights. It’s the sixth inning of another meaningless spring-training game, and the fans are flexing their heckling muscles. Their targets are the guys with the high numbers on their uniforms—the only ones for whom a game like this has any importance. And indeed, if their presence is acknowledged at all, commentary descends to the generic: "Run, you bastard, run!" "Hey, hey, hey, this is a family game down here!" "That's why I said 'bastard.' "

Down on the field, the Mets' David Lamb, number 76, in attempting a squeeze, has succeeded in bunting into a double play. Shane Halter, who started the spring on the Mets' roster, and is one of Lamb's rivals for the utility infielder spot, looked just as bad, going hitless and booting one at third base. It's probably of little consolation to Lamb, a non-roster invitee. For these orphaned, journeyman players that get invited every year, there is only now.

Back at the Mets' home base in Port St. Lucie, some of these fringe guys talk openly about their up-and-down playing lives. Others don't want to talk at all. Lamb, 24, has bounced from team to team throughout his young career, at one point moving from the Orioles' AAA team to the Devil Rays to the Mets in the space of little over a year. "I was upset to leave Tampa," he says, looking down at the strange uniform he's wearing, then glancing around the room and noting, "I don't even know most of these guys."

He lives in a state of perpetual audition. "No one knows you, knows what you can do. It's tough. It's like that squeeze play. I've only got six at-bats, and so I'm thinking, 'Oh great, they think I can't bunt,' and all of a sudden you get labeled."

On the other side of this audition are the baseball people who are watching these players and deciding their fate. Omar Minaya is the Mets assistant general manager and head of international scouting. He made his reputation by signing Sammy Sosa when he worked for the Texas Rangers. Of these marginal men Minaya says, "You're always gonna have two or three of these guys that come to the forefront every spring." Guys such as Melvin Mora, who tore up spring training last year, and finally made it to the big leagues after languishing in Houston's farm system for seven years.

Mora is proof that, no matter how unlikely, it can be done. You just have to get hot. Very hot. And no scrub is going to get cut any slack for a couple of bad games. About this, Minaya is blunt, "You have to perform."

But to perform, these on-the-cusp guys have to play, and in spring training the opportunities can be few and far between. It often seems that the older players get fewer chances, and all of these guys are acutely aware of how important the age factor is. They know that it's the main criterion by which their career trajectories are measured, and they refer to their age constantly.

Manaya: "Some players, because of their age, it might be the difference between having hope and losing hope. Take Shane Halter, who, at 30, has been on the bubble his whole career. Most of these guys are in that area; these are guys we've seen pretty much. When you get to be middle twenties, you've been seen and there's enough documentation about your skills."

Brian Shouse is a freckle-faced 32-year-old pitcher who has worked two months in the bigs over a 10-year career. He has a sweet smile, a sad-sack disposition, and a current residence at the Holiday Inn out on Route 1. "I got a month with Pittsburgh in '93, and didn't go back up till '98 with Boston. Those five years in between were pretty rough—feeling like I deserved a shot here or there or whatever."

Someone like Shouse plays so much of his career in the shadows that the chance to pitch in spring training means a lot more to him. He also seems to possess much more of those recognizable qualities like self-doubt and introspection than most of the other players.

"Being in the minors most of your career, you don't know where you're going to be from year to year, and don't know if you're gonna have a job. Sometimes I think 'Oh man, I've been playing this game for so long.' I've got a wife and kids. But we're still paying the bills, so I keep going until I have to step into the real world, I guess."

The chance nature of making the grade is not lost on the players. Says Lamb, "There's a lot of guys that never get to be in the big leagues. You can't say they're not good enough. . . . " The young infielder is trying to put his finger on it, but can't quite. "There are some guys in the big leagues that got their break. . . . They weren't any better than anyone else, and they end up staying there 10 years."

Figuring that it's got to erode these players' sense of confidence, never quite making it, we ask veteran scout Minaya if these borderline boys are given any sort of checkup from the neck up.

"Like anything else the mental part of the game is very important," he answers. "Although you generally don't come into contact with the player, you usually just see him from the stands. It's mostly what you see on the field—the walk, the way they carry themselves."

It becomes clear that no great attention is paid to these guys' inner qualities. For Minaya, the club's priorities are more straightforward: "We look for guys that fit in; guys who fit in financially and can be productive. Those guys are important to organizations right now."

Shane Halter has reason to feel he holds the inside track with the powers that be, having been called up last September for seven games with the Mets and having played parts of two seasons with Kansas City. He is seated at his locker on Wednesday, a split squad day, when we ask whether he will make the trip to Viera to play the Marlins.

"No," he answers curtly.

"So you're going to play at home?"

"No." Pause. "I just got released."

"Just now?"

"Yeah," he looks up, his eyes on fire. "I really think you're talking to the wrong guy." He goes back to cramming his gear into a duffel bag. We assure him that he is exactly the guy we want to talk to.

"Was this unexpected?"

"No," he says quietly, looking down at the carpet. "I just thought I'd get more of a shot than this." His voice is one of choked anger, trying to hold back the bile that accumulates over the course of an uneven career. He looks at us and says no more.

So, after days of observing players talk about how they've come to accept the uncertainty of their plight with equanimity, reality intrudes. The anguish of sitting astride the fence that separates the two worlds here—the big leagues and the minors—is palpable.

Later that day, people in the Mets' front office need Halter to sign some papers, but are having surprising difficulty locating him or even finding out where he lives or who his friends might be. It's disquieting to hear and underlines the idea that Shane Halter is little more than a commodity, a name on a board whose number is up.

Within a week, he has been picked up by the Detroit Tigers, so that he can enjoy the opportunity of going through this all over again.

On his way out of the clubhouse and into oblivion, Halter hurries past Bill Devaney, a contrary old codger who mans the side door to the Mets clubhouse. He has little love for most of the bigger names that pass through his door and likes to minimize contact with them, so as to, in his words, "Give them fewer chances to look down their noses at me." Devaney expresses surprise over Halter's release, and he warms up considerably at the mention of the non-roster guys.

"They're hungry and they're nice. I hope to God they never change." He pulls off his Mets cap and wipes his brow. "A lot of times, you don't know who they are. They're just numbers and names on a uniform. In another week, they'll be gone."

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