Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Frank Viola has vivid memories of what he calls "the get-together in Homestead" back in 1995. It was his chance to show teams that he was healthy coming back from Tommy John surgery.
"I was hanging on," recalls Viola, the former Mets star who was a 35-year-old free agent at the time. "Do I keep going? Coming off Tommy John, you don't want that to end your career. I wanted to prove to myself that I still had what it takes."
For others, though, the first-ever spring training camp for unsigned players, "was life or death," Viola says. Following the end of the 1994-95 strike, "Guys had to find situations, ways to be seen," he adds. "The concept was fantastic."
Viola's perspective seems timely now, since that concept is being revived by the Major League Baseball Players Association. With more than 90 unsigned free agents still looking for teams, including some of the biggest names on the market, the union has partnered with the IMG Academy, a 500-plus acre facility in Bradenton, Fla., to offer a spring training of sorts for unsigned players.
Former Astros manager Bo Porter will run the workouts, which begin Tuesday, and will end some time in March.
"It's a way for those guys to get together and do something in a group," says Viola, who will be busy at Mets' camp - he's the pitching coach for the Mets' Double-A Binghamton club. "There's a lot of free agents out there. You have to have a place to work out if you're unsigned. In a group, they can push each other and be ready when a team calls.
"Back then, it was very difficult for me because I didn't have anyone to work out with. The guys I worked out with, they were with their teams. It (the free-agent camp) was needed at the time because everything was so slow."
The camp worked for Viola. The former AL Cy Young Award winner was invited to extended spring training with the Blue Jays, and made it back to the majors that September with the Reds.
Viola, a two-time All-Star as a Met who went 20-12 in 1990, spent 10 days at the camp in Homestead, Fla. in April of 1995. At the time, according to the New York Times, longtime MLB player Randy Velarde dubbed himself and the rest of the group the "Homestead Homies." There were 29 players there the first day.
The camp was run by Jackie Moore, who managed the A's for parts of three seasons from 1984-86, and Viola calls it "a bona fide spring training for guys. It was very professional for the amount of veteran presence that was there."
But, Viola also adds, "You'll never make everybody happy." There was, Viola says, frustration for some of the other players there. They knew they could play. They wanted jobs.
"Every pitch was important to those guys," Viola says. "You don't know who is watching."
He mostly hung out with Lloyd McClendon and Tom Foley, he recalls. After workouts, they'd go play golf. Viola remembers staying at a nearby hotel.
Viola threw several side sessions, and then a live session of batting practice.
On April 24, he signed with the Blue Jays, and went to their extended spring training camp in Dunedin for six weeks to build up his arm. He pitched for Toronto's Class A club, and then the Reds called with an opportunity to pitch in Triple-A.
He was called up in September and made three starts, going 0-1 with a 6.28 ERA. But those starts "proved to me I could still do this." The Blue Jays resigned him for 1996, but "it didn't play out the way I wanted. I kind of gave up on myself," Viola says. He was released that June.
But he was able to push his career farther, in part because of the camp for unsigned players. Maybe this year's model will have the same effect on today's players.
"I'm very thankful for Homestead," Viola says.