Spring hopes eternal

Jason Miller

With pitchers and catchers reporting at the end of the week, the 2014 positional battles will truly begin. And while most people see spring training as a tune-up for the stars and a first glimpse of the future, there are a number of aging veterans hoping for one last chance. These are the stories to pay attention to.

Judging from films like Bull Durham, For the Love of the Game, or really any Kevin Costner movie that tangentially relates to baseball, the life of a ballplayer is a romantic one. It's about hard work, tears, love, and America, you know, the sports equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen song.

Even with today's big business approach to baseball, conglomerates owning teams, entire marketing departments dreaming up slogans to get fans to show up, and ballplayers earning more than some small nations, the game retains that essence.

Just look at all the players who, after retiring to spend weekends watching South Beach Tow marathons or coaching Little League teams, find the itch to come back, scheduling throwing sessions at their old high school for anyone who will watch, hoping for that elusive spring training invite.

And sure, maybe it's boredom, maybe it's that they're not good at anything else, or maybe it's because they believe their love the game will be just enough to make up for their decreased power, speed, and agility.

The cards are stacked against these players. Not only has the time off added rust and eroded their skills, but every year, hundreds of new, hungry players, designed and hired specifically to take those jobs, are brought in to devour the old at a fraction of the cost.

And when they do make the team, making the leap from spring training invite to the 25-man roster, they're rarely successful. Last year's shining beacon of hope, Scott Kazmir, returning to the league after a year off, with a cumulative ERA of 5.54 between 2009 and 2011, came back to pitch 158 innings with a 4.04 ERA and a 9.2 K/9 for the Indians. While those were his best numbers since 2008, Kazmir's ERA was still 8% below the league average--a useful player, and good enough for the Athletics to risk two years and $22 million on him, but not the miracle resurgence we'd like to believe in.

Far more often, the players end up like Jeremy Bonderman. Somehow only 30 years old last season, Bonderman came back after missing two seasons to pitch 55 innings out of the bullpen with a 5.40 ERA. That he was good enough to be pitch at all in the major leagues, defying both time and the surgeon's scalpel, is the success story, regardless of the on-field performance.

With Spring Training set to start at the end of the week, these stories will begin to play out once again.

Joel Pineiro, last seen in the major leagues in 2011, is hoping to get a chance in what he has claimed is his last attempt at major league glory. Last night, pitching for Puerto Rico in the Caribbean World Series, Pineiro pitched 6.2 innings, surrendering only two unearned runs, but striking out only Yuniet Flores, a Cuban player with a .652 OPS last year.

Brad Penny, his thick body and high socks reportedly refreshed a year removed from a 3.2 K/9 rate with the Giants, has signed on with the Royals and hopes to latch on in the back of rotation behind Bruce Chen.

Bobby Abreu, like salmon, is returning to the home where he first experienced major league success, battling for the left-handed bench role with the Phillies. Though the 20/20 seasons are long behind him and his outfield mobility has been reduced to almost nothing, he's held onto a modicum of power and a patient eye, even posting a .350 OBP with the Angels and Dodgers in 2012.

Grady Sizemore, only 31 years of age and with a graveyard of "Is this his year?" articles in his wake, will be reporting to camp with the Red Sox, hoping that some of his 30/30 magic from 2008 is still there. Though he hasn't had an at-bat since 2011, the World Champs' outfield is spotty, Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, and Jackie Bradley Jr holding down left and center, giving Sizemore a chance to latch on.

I could list these forever, players like Brett Tomko hoping to return from the wilds of independent baseball, Casey McGehee and Nyjer Morgan returning to the States after finding success in Japan, the siren call of major league baseball too much to resist.

But the strangest name to show up on the list is Mark Mulder who hasn't picked up a baseball in a professional setting since 2008 when he pitched 1.2 innings for the St. Louis Cardinals. Unlike other players who have signed minor league contracts every winter only to return home disappointed, Mulder instead spent the last half decade bouncing between an ESPN analyst's chair and trying his luck as a professional golfer.

But this year, after watching Paco Rodriguez pitch, and finding inspiration in the elevated arm slot, Mulder decided to try it out. After years of being unable to throw a baseball, Mulder surprisingly found that this method worked.

Suddenly, Mulder was pitching 88-92 and he's found himself heading to camp with the Angels. Though the hope of a return to his form from 2001-2005, when he averaged 211 innings a year with a 3.65 ERA is beyond the pale, the slightest resemblance to that is worth the price of admission.

But even if Mulder shows up in spring and impresses the scouts and coaches alike, he'll have a difficult time latching on with the team. Every unique career path faces an uphill battle against the conventional one. There's nothing to lose when conventional wisdom fails, that's just the random chaos of life. But to lose on a risk like Mulder, or Sizemore, or Abreu, choosing one of them over a new acquisition or a former top draft pick or a player that the owner likes, that takes guts and a little bit of prayer. Even if Mulder makes the big league team, his first rough outing will have everyone questioning whether he has the talent to compete as a 36-year-old with five years of retirement on the books.

But the story of baseball is built on exceptions. As Rob Neyer noted in his piece on Jamie Moyer earlier this week, under no reasonable assumption would you have pegged Jamie Moyer to ever pitch in the majors after 1991. When teams were courting Moyer as a coach, he instead chose to play and wound up with another 235 wins career victories under his belt, pitching until he was 49 years old.

And that's the hope that players and teams share in, that there is a second or third or, if we want to get Shakespearean, fifth act in these careers, that there is one more productive season that can be wrung out of the aging muscles and tendons.

Spring training may be an exercise in boredom for most of the roster, but at the back end, among the prospects, never-will-bes and the has-beens, there is drama and excitement and something to root for.

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