I generally have three favorite times of the year in baseball:
1) The non-waiver trading deadline on July 31
It happens to be my birthday and a lot of years, something big goes down on it– Randy Johnson to the Astros in 1998, Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers in 2008. I like to think of the blockbuster deals as presents to me from Major League Baseball.
2) The winter meetings, followed by free agency
It’s less exciting than the trade deadline, as deals get leaked and then take weeks to finalize. Still, there’s usually one or two big signings or trades per off-season. My Giants even occasionally make a splash if there’s a player named Barry on the market or some geezer who needs a three year, $18 million contract.
3) Right now
Right now, many veterans are quietly signing minor league contracts, reporting to spring training and attempting to hook on with new teams. The Dodgers just inked Garrett Anderson to a minor league deal and the Brewers did likewise not too long ago with another ex-All Star outfielder, Jim Edmonds. Meanwhile, the A’s gave minor league contracts last week to two formerly decent pitchers, Brett Tomko and Jason Jennings. The odds of these players having good seasons aren’t great, though it’s a win-win for them and their teams on the chance they do succeed since there’s minimal risk. The long odds also help make the efforts compelling. In terms of human interest stories, little else in baseball beats this time of year, at least for me.
I love when ballplayers can’t walk away for love of the game. I loved when Rickey Henderson went on ESPN some years ago to make a public service announcement that he was available to any team, and the Dodgers subsequently signed him. I love when players like Henderson, Edgardo Alfonzo and Jose Offerman wind up in the independent leagues, hoping to return to the majors. I interviewed Jose Canseco in April 2008 and asked him if he missed the game. Canseco, 43 at the time, replied without hesitating, “Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I miss the game, love the game, wish I were still playing. Probably physically enough, to play the game, in shape. But things didn’t turn out that way.”
Baseball presents a brief, glorious time for those who get to the play, and if there’s generally a common theme among ex-players I’ve talked to over the years, it’s something near wistfulness for bygone days. So it doesn’t surprise me that many active players do what it takes to keep the dream alive, like accepting non-guaranteed deals with humbling, low figures.
This isn’t a new concept, of course. A New York Times article from 1992 discusses future Hall of Fame members Goose Gossage, Gary Carter and Bert Blyleven (he’ll be in Cooperstown next year) agreeing to Triple-A contracts late in their careers. Carter was effectively done by then, though Gossage stayed with his parent team, the A’s and finished with a 2.84 ERA in 1992, while Blyleven made 24 starts that year for the Angels. More recently, Sammy Sosa rode a minor league deal with Texas into a half-decent season a few years ago. John Jaha fared better in 1999, turning a minor league deal into a 35-home run, All Star season, as well as a $6 million contract extension.
Seasons like Jaha’s aren’t the norm, but either way, players in his situation keep me intrigued. Low-end as their deals may be, there’s nothing minor about what they’re attempting.