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Baseball’s Rumored Spring Training for Free Agents Has Happened Before

The prospect of MLB’s unsigned players forming their own team this spring amid a historically slow offseason might seem unprecedented, but in 1995, a collection of major league hopefuls left unsigned after the strike did just that.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, an unidentified hacker gained control of the San Diego Padres’ Instagram and Twitter accounts. Armed with access to hundreds of thousands of long-suffering fans, the hacker sent out multiple messages that, taken together, strongly suggested that San Diego had signed Eric Hosmer, the free-agent first baseman who’s been linked to the team in repeated rumors this month.

In the annals of allegedly hacked tweets, a false free-agent signing doesn’t rate very high on the scandal scale. In the context of this winter’s baseball market, though, the news of a notable signing was so surprising that a hacked account was the likeliest explanation. The biggest story in the sport is the lack of activity that’s come to characterize an offseason in which Hosmer is one of many high-profile free agents who’ve been waiting, week after week, for contracts that haven’t come.

Data from MLB.com’s transaction logs, which go back to 2001 (and were gathered and provided for this article by Nick Jones), show that with only a couple of days remaining in January, the number of free agents signed to major league contracts since the start of November is far lower than in any previous November-January period over that 17-year span. Data from Baseball-Reference, meanwhile, confirms that the number of available free agents per offseason has held steady. The players are out there; teams simply aren’t signing them. Baseball’s offseason, which started with a historically slow first month, has hardly heated up.

Although extrapolating from an outlier offseason is dangerous, the slow-moving market may be a symptom of deep-rooted problems. If the industry’s increasingly data-driven and disciplined teams have collectively realized that long-term contracts for free agents tend to be bad investments, then baseball’s collectively bargained, backward-by-design economy, which has historically relied on players being paid disproportionately for seasons in which they’re typically past their primes, may have to be overhauled in order to placate the players and preserve labor peace. However, the hundreds of current free agents with major league service time who remain unsigned—ranging from fringy aspiring role players to the top five players on MLB Trade Rumors’ November free-agent ranking—face a more immediate concern: where they’re going to go when spring training starts next month for players who are attached to teams. Most of those unemployed players expect to be signed eventually, but with each day of camp that they miss, they’ll risk falling further behind their competitors.

Last Friday, Yahoo Sports columnist Jeff Passan reported that a number of players “have discussed the possibility of staging a free agent training camp to mimic their typical spring work.” To most active players (and, perhaps, fans), that concept must sound like a novel solution to an unprecedented problem. But baseball, the Bible, and Battlestar Galactica remind us that most seemingly extraordinary occurrences have happened before. Baseball’s first spring training for free agents took place 23 years ago. And while the still-singular event served its planned purpose, those who were there hope it won’t have to happen again.

In the same article that mentioned the prospect of a free-agents-only spring training camp, Passan also reported that players are “as engaged as they’ve been in economic matters in more than a decade—maybe more than any time since 1994.” Days later, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen confirmed that report by raising the specter of a strike, which would be baseball’s first since that infamous ’94 season.

On August 12, 1994, the players went on strike in response to a proposal from MLB owners that would have instituted a salary cap. A little more than a month later, the owners canceled the remainder of the season and the postseason. In November, the owners announced their intention to unilaterally impose a salary cap, and despite pressure from the White House, the dispute stretched into the following year. On February 16, 1995, spring training began with non-union replacement players. Not until March 31, when then–U.S. Federal Justice Sonia Sotomayor upheld a National Labor Relations Board injunction against the owners’ plan to start the season with the scabs, did the strike finally stop. The following day, clubs released their replacement players, and on April 5, the “real” players reported to spring training, with the regular season slated to start on April 26.

In the wake of the uncertain winter, though, many experienced big leaguers were still looking for places to play. According to an email from Allyne Price, a longtime MLB Players Association executive who was then the manager of marketing services and is now the general manager of player services, about 130 free agents (out of more than 350) were still unsigned. (Contemporary reports put the figure closer to 200.) Donald Fehr, the then–executive director of the MLB Players Association (who now serves in the same role for the NHLPA), explains via phone that the large remaining free-agent pool “was in large part a result of the strike, the fact that it had gone on so long, the fact that the owners had unilaterally changed the rules [midwinter].” When the owners had tried to impose their will without the players’ consent, the union had instructed players not to sign contracts. Later, the owners’ labor relations committee stripped signing power from individual teams, which were bleeding dollars by the day while the work stoppage lengthened. Because of what was, in effect, a “double signing freeze,” Fehr says that the post-strike market “had a lot of players in the very unusual situation of not knowing where to go that you would expect would eventually hook up with major league teams.”

Some members of that extra-large player pool had received offers from teams that they preferred not to play for, or that would pay them less than they thought they deserved. Others were waiting for any offer at all. “Everybody wanted to get into a place where they could work out and get into playing condition and demonstrate their skills, more or less, so that they could secure a contract to go back to playing in the major leagues when the season opened,” Fehr says. Having asked those same players to strike, the union now felt responsible for helping them return to the Show. “There was clearly not going to be a facility set up with the basics of a major league training camp and all the rest of that unless the union did it,” Fehr adds. “There was no agent or agent group or group of agents that could have done that or would have tried.”

The union was capable of creating the camp—which at that time, really was without precedent, as far as Fehr knows—on short notice because it had already laid the groundwork for a more ambitious strike contingency plan. “The camp was originally never intended to be a camp,” says Price, who helped spearhead the MLBPA’s strike contingency plans, which started to coalesce in December ’94. Instead, the union intended to bring back a time-honored baseball tradition, the barnstorming tour. Selected players would form four teams—East, South, Central, and West—and play each other in weekend-only games in parks across the country (mostly minor league parks without MLB affiliations) for six to eight weeks, beginning in May. The union hired outside consultants to help secure the venues and an agency to sell sponsorships that would help fund the tour, which would also raise money for charity, including youth baseball programs, the Children’s Miracle Network, and the Baseball Assistance Team.

“We literally put four teams together, including coaching staffs, medical staffs, insurance for the players, clubhouse staffs, uniforms, etc.,” Price says. In addition to keeping the sport’s striking workforce busy, the tour would pay promotional dividends; one can picture the PR potential of a traveling roadshow composed of popular, low-paid players who would remind fans what they were missing and generate revenue for good causes while the wealthy owners whined about a salary cap. But once the injunction was upheld and it became clear that the season would soon start, Price explains, “we quickly turned our focus from barnstorming to finding a facility where we could send all the free agents and provide ‘one stop shopping’ for club scouts.”

Fortunately for the free agents, there was one major league–quality spring training site that wasn’t in use. In 1991, the Cleveland Indians had started constructing a new, $22 million spring training facility in Homestead, Florida, about 40 miles south of Miami. In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew came close to destroying the site. While it was undergoing an $8 million rebuild, other teams moved away from the area, and the Indians opted not to move in. As a result, the Homestead complex was unoccupied in April ’95, and the MLBPA quickly claimed it, putting the word out to players and agents mostly through mailings, faxes, and calls. Players wouldn’t be paid to practice in Homestead, but the union hired a travel agency to arrange complimentary travel, lodging, and meals for any free agents who wanted to attend.

Staffing the camp proved simple, because Homestead was a waystation for free agents of all stripes. “There were a ton of former players out there, as well as former coaches and managers, who wanted to get back into baseball,” says Price, who was in Homestead for the duration of the camp, which ran in parallel with the 28 clubs’ camps from early to late April. “This gave them a perfect opening,” she adds. “Same with clubhouse staffing—there were former trainers and clubhouse staff (and PR personnel) who were looking for a way back, and this gave them that opportunity.”

The opportunity to manage the ragtag free-agent team went to Jackie Moore, a widely respected “baseball man” who played in 21 major league games (all in 1965) and, after retiring from catching, spent decades as a coach or manager for several organizations, including parts of three seasons as Oakland A’s skipper in the mid-1980s. Moore had been the bench coach for the Rangers from 1993 to 1994, and would become the bench coach for the Rockies from 1996 to 1998, but he didn’t have a home for 1995, which made him a free agent also.

Documents courtesy of Jackie Moore

Moore’s availability, experience, and connections made him a logical choice to lend an air of normality to an abnormal environment. “I was the guy they chose, because I was going to run it just like a spring training,” Moore says by phone. Three-time All-Star reliever Jay Howell, a camp attendee whom Moore had managed in Oakland, describes the easygoing and “authentic” Moore as a perfect fit for a group of veterans brought together by circumstance. “He’s not a hardass, and obviously that camp didn’t need that,” Howell says by phone. “It wouldn’t have made any difference.”

In some respects, the Homestead routine was indistinguishable from that of a regular spring training. “Basically it was all the same as far as the baseball part of it,” Moore says. Players stretched, took batting practice, and did fundamental drills. Whenever possible, they played games against area amateur teams, drawing from junior colleges and high schools. Failing that, the Homestead players scrimmaged against each other. “It wasn’t as much competition as muscle memory,” Price says. Once word got out about the games, a smattering of fans trickled to the camp to gawk and ask for autographs. Former MLB starting pitcher Tim Belcher, a Homestead participant who’d previously played with Howell on the 1988-91 Dodgers, remembers pilots from the Homestead Air Reserve Base flying low enough over the ballpark that the players could hear them “holler and whistle” through their jets’ external PA systems.

Some of the players felt disconnected from their under-contract counterparts across the league: “We were kind of on an island,” Belcher recalls. Even without elite competition or the motivating power of performing in front of their long-term coaches or crowds, though, there wasn’t a lot of lollygagging going on. “Guys were working just as hard, if not harder,” Belcher says. “The group drills and things like that probably looked far less intense and far less like something important was going on than they would had it been a regular team camp. But individually, guys were taking as many or more swings than they would otherwise have been in a regular camp, and pitchers were throwing just as they would.”

In other ways, though, Homestead was bizarro spring training. “Usually you go to spring training and you want to keep the scouts away from your players and keep the players that you have signed,” Moore says. “And this was a total different situation, where you wanted to get them signed and get them a job as soon as possible.” Moore recalls that “just about all of the clubs” sent scouts to see the players they’d passed over. At a typical spring training site, scouts would be banished to the stands during practice, but because Homestead existed to showcase the players’ skills, Moore gave the talent evaluators greater access than they usually enjoyed. “I remember the first time I invited them all on the field to get behind the cages and everything, get a closer look at players they were interested in,” Moore says. “They first thought I was kidding. And I said, ‘No, you guys are welcome. You’re here to sign players, and players are here to be signed.’” If scouts asked about a particular player’s health or readiness, Moore would offer any information he had.

When he did his job well, Moore would find himself with fewer players than he’d had before. “A lot of times, I would go home after a practice and I’d see somewhere on the late news that a certain player was signed by a different club, and I’d have to scratch them off that night,” he says. “And a lot of it, I didn’t even know. So they’d be stretching and exercising that morning, and I’d go around with a roster and see who all I had. I’d put a checkmark by a name if the guy was still here, and if someone had been signed late that night and had already gone, I would ‘X’ him off.”

Price says that more than 70 players spent time at Homestead (although The New York Times said 57), with all but a few signing major or minor league deals. Most of the best-known names to pass through the camp—Dave Magadan, Dave Stewart, Andy Van Slyke, Vince Coleman, Chris Sabo, Frank Viola, Lonnie Smith—were over the hill as athletes, although two of the team’s catchers were still attractive talents. Benito Santiago, who signed with the Reds, had only just turned 30 and was still a potent hitter, and Mickey Tettleton, who signed with the Rangers, had been an All-Star in 1994. “I can’t honestly say that we could’ve competed every day with the powerhouses—you know, Yankees, Red Sox, and those kind of clubs,” Moore says. “But we definitely would not have embarrassed ourselves.”

Because most of the temporary teammates were veterans who’d been bouncing around the big leagues for years, they’d played with or against each other and were used to the drill of making friends fast. “It doesn’t take long for these players to understand that it’s a large fraternity,” Moore says. “They have the same desires, the same problems.” Shortly after showing up, guys were golfing, fishing, and discussing their shared predicament.

“We were misfits,” Howell says, unintentionally echoing a descriptor used by his Homestead teammate Randy Velarde in 1995. Velarde also dubbed the club the “Homestead Homies.” Howell adds, “It was great. Everybody pretty much got along. You’d rag on each other. … There was some real comedy that was going on.” Howell remembers Van Slyke, whom a 1992 Sports Illustrated feature noted “may be the most entertaining player in baseball,” as Homestead’s head humorist and ragging ringleader.

There was bitterness, too, although it was prompted more by the market and the Homestead players’ unfortunate timing than by envy of other players’ employment. For the typical major leaguer, Moore says, “the most exciting time in his career is when he becomes a free agent. Obviously you make extra money with the opportunity. He’s paid his dues, and now it’s time for a good payday. And then all at once this happens. And so obviously it’s disappointing, and a lot of these players’ attitudes and everything—it didn’t happen for them how it had happened for free agents in the past.” That sentiment might sound familiar to the current crop of players whose free agencies haven’t unfolded as their agents anticipated.

As spring training dragged on, Opening Day came closer, and the roster thinned out, the remaining players, perhaps for the first time in their lives, were left feeling what many mortals experience during a traumatic middle-school gym class: the pain of not being picked for a team. “The longer they were there, obviously they were a little more concerned,” Moore says. “Because they had seen some of their teammates there that had been signed and moved on and so you can imagine the anxiety there. … I could see the tension in some of them, that they wanted to get done and move on and get to their clubs.” Former big leaguer Lloyd McClendon, another Homestead alum who stuck it out almost until the camp closed before Cleveland came through with a minor league deal, puts it more plainly: “It was frustrating as hell.”

The New York Post dubbed Homestead “Camp Collusion,” suggesting that so many free agents were looking for work because of a coordinated salary-reduction strategy among owners. “At that particular time, collusion probably was on everybody’s mind,” McClendon says. Belcher, a former player rep, also believes (based on the similarity of teams’ proposed contract terms) that the “Camp Collusion” label was apt, at least for the “run-of-the-mill” free agents who made up most of Homestead’s roster. At 33, he had several seasons ahead of him, and his 1994 salary, $3.4 million, was one of the highest of any Homestead player, so the cut to $580,000 in his ’95 season in Seattle—which included an earned $380,000 bonus—must have stung. Still, it’s easy to see why his performance the previous season hadn’t inspired a similar investment: Belcher had been below replacement level, walking more hitters than he struck out and leading the major leagues in losses. “There were probably people in Detroit that watched me pitch in ’94 that didn’t think I would get out of Homestead with a job,” he says. In fact, he’d had the option to sign with Seattle at the start of the spring, skipping Homestead entirely, but he’d held off, hoping for a return to the NL after his unpleasant AL experience. “American League’s a bitch,” he says.

Howell, who was 39 and coming off his own unsightly season, was among the players who had to hang it up after Homestead, along with other aged veterans like Glenn Wilson and Smith. He has no hard feelings, acknowledging that he had little left in the tank. “We knew we were barnacles on the ship,” Howell says. “We [were] low on the totem pole. ... I can’t look at it and go, ‘Oh, [the owners] were just trying to get rid of us.’ Every year there are veterans that are culled. They constantly cull the herd.”

When the 28 MLB teams’ rosters were set, Howell took the hint and went home. His former teammate Goose Gossage, he recalls, had once urged him to “make ’em tear the uni off you.” After Homestead, he felt like he had. The Homies had been his Charon, ferrying him into retirement. “It was like, ‘That’s it. You’re gone. Take some time,’” he says. “So you have to figure out, ‘OK, well, what is it that—should I be working out? I mean, what am I doing?’ It’s a holiday. It’s strange. But you wise up to it pretty quick.”

For the following winter’s free agents, Homestead became a bogeyman, a one-word intimidation tactic invoked by clubs to scare players into signing. For those who were there, though, the perception of Homestead has grown warmer with time. “It worked out well for Homestead, the Players Association, and the players and me,” Moore reflects. “Baseball had gotten back up off its knees, moving forward, strike over. As baseball always goes, it finds a way to bounce back ... and get back to what we do best.” McClendon mentions that he’s been wanting to tell his grandkids about the month he spent in baseball’s sole spring purgatory. “You don’t realize that over the course of your career there’s certain things that you were a part of that [were] history,” he says. Price adds, “It was one of the more interesting experiences of my own career, literally starting a team from the ground up.” She remembers “buying office supplies and training room supplies and even doing the laundry,” all of which gave her a greater appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work that goes into fielding a franchise, however short-lived.

For younger fans who didn’t sweat through the strike—and, for that matter, many older fans who did—Homestead has largely been forgotten. The name briefly resurfaced in February 2009, when another free-agent pileup prompted collusion speculation, but multiple Players Association sources told me that to their knowledge, the prospect of a sequel was never discussed. Thus far, the union hasn’t entertained the idea in 2018, either. “I think it’s still a little early for us to think about it,” Price says. “Personally I keep hoping that every time I read about a trade or signing … that it will open the floodgates.”

The free-agent floodgates will have to open at some point to keep negotiations from turning contentious in 2021, when baseball’s CBA expires. “The game is in such a good state right now,” McClendon says. “We don’t need any more of that mess.” In light of the sport’s prosperity, Belcher doesn’t believe that today’s well-paid players and “softened” union will be willing to go as far as Fehr and his right-hand man, Gene Orza. “They kind of played good cop, bad cop, but they were both kinda bad cops,” he says. “They were both as hard-core negotiators as the teamsters or coal miners have ever seen in their decades of struggle. ... And then you get a couple hardliners on the other side, and then you’ve got an issue.” And Price, too, thinks that the recent rumblings of labor unrest are premature. “For me, the ONLY similarity [between today and 1995] is that there are free agents who have not signed,” she says. “The atmosphere was so different in 1995. We were still in the old cycle of labor battles every CBA.”

As the stove stays cold and the rhetoric heats up, Homestead is still a blip on baseball’s historical record, a footnote for all but a few lifers like Moore. At 78, the former Homies manager is retired, save for some part-time work for the Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters. As a coach, he went to three World Series and eight All-Star games, but his Homestead stint, he says, ranks alongside any other experience. “I was in baseball 57 years, and it’s one of the most exciting things that I [have] done,” he says. “Because it never happened before, and hopefully it never will again.”

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