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EXTRA INNINGS

Published Feb. 20, 1997|Updated Sep. 30, 2005

Cory Snyder was playing slow-pitch softball. Howard Johnson was coaching a rookie-league team. Andy Van Slyke was working in the broadcast booth. Kelly Gruber was running an Italian restaurant in Texas.

All had given up their playing careers. Moved on. Retired.

Or so we thought.

Like old friends, they're popping up in spring training camps throughout Florida and Arizona. And they're not alone.

More than a half-dozen thirtysomething players presumed retired have returned to the field, trying to win jobs in spring training and resume their once-glorious careers.

"It was in my heart," said Johnson, who at 36 seemed set for a long coaching career with his hometown Devil Rays. "I tried to let it pass. I thought maybe everyone thinks this way, and if that's the case it'll just go away. It's something I prayed about a lot and thought about a lot. I don't know. I just felt like I was going to do it.

"It was now or never. And when I looked at the consequences if I didn't do anything, if I just continued to coach and if I didn't follow through with it, that would dog me the rest of my life."

Instead, Johnson will report to the Mets camp in Port St. Lucie hoping to win a backup job, but with no promises it will be anything more than a waste of time.

Snyder and Van Slyke are doing the same in the Cardinals camp. Gruber is with the Orioles. Kevin Bass is with the Angels. Mitch Williams is in the Royals camp. Scott Bailes, who has been working in the business world since last pitching in the majors in 1992, is with Texas.

And working out unsigned in the Pirates minor-league camp is 39-year-old Steve Trout, who has not pitched in a major-league game in the 1990s.

Why?

Furthermore, why now?

St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty offered a couple of theories. "One is that guys get out of the game and they miss it. And it's a pretty good way to make a living," Jocketty said.

"Secondly, I'm sure they also see a great opportunity for next year with expansion. If they stay active this year, there's a better opportunity to play next year somewhere."

Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar said the biggest issue is the talent level in the majors.

"For as many "retired' players to truly feel comfortable enough that they have a chance to make a major-league club might indicate the effects expansion has had on the talent level in the major leagues and what effect another round of expansion will have," LaMar said.

Mets GM Joe McIlvaine said the bottom line is the bottom dollar. "That's an easy question to answer," he said. "It's m-o-n-e-y. They've found they can't make anywhere near what they make in baseball."

The players say it's not money that matters. They do not get paid for coming to spring training and most likely have signed for a base salary of a couple of hundred thousand dollars with perhaps an equal amount in performance-based incentives.

Johnson said he does not know what he will make, having told McIlvaine to "put down whatever he wanted."

"Money has nothing to do with it," Snyder said. "I don't care about the money. I just love the game and I want to play it. It's something I've always done and something I want to do until I can't do it anymore."

Snyder, 34, hoped to do this last year. He spent the 1994 season with the Dodgers and played briefly in the minors in 1995, but soon found himself pondering a depressing end to a nine-year major-league career.

He hit balls in the batting cage behind his California home. He opened a sporting goods store and offered his expertise to Little Leaguers. He took a friend up on an offer to play professional slow-pitch softball, hitting about 75 homers in as many games for Dan Smith Plastering.

But it wasn't enough.

"I felt baseball kind of pushed me out, kind of retired me," Snyder said. "It was like, I'm not ready to give it up. I love baseball too much and I love the game too much to do that."

He thought he was over the urge a few times. But by October, Snyder knew he had to try again. His agent, Jeff Moorad, worked the phones. No luck. Then Moorad arranged a mid-January tryout for a half-dozen unsigned clients and Snyder, with power at the plate and versatility to play any position, was impressive.

"Obviously every team and every GM is looking to catch lightning in a bottle," Moorad said. "As a result, hope springs eternal. There's always a chance even an older veteran who's been out of the game for some time will find the right opportunity and the right fit with the right team."

That is the situation with Gruber. The 34-year-old former Blue Jays All-Star has not played in the majors since '93. But after years of pain and fusion surgery to repair herniated disks in his neck in 1995, he is ready to try again.

And after one day of practice, Orioles manager Davey Johnson said Gruber was among the candidates to be the Opening Day second baseman while Roberto Alomar serves his suspension. The restaurant Gruber runs with his wife in Austin, Texas, may have to wait.

Van Slyke retired after the 1995 season because of a bad back. He spent 1996 doing commentary on ESPN games and hosted a radio talk show, but his desire to return grew as his back felt better. Wednesday, he said he felt as strong as it had it years.

"Why come back? I don't know. It's intriguing," Van Slyke said. "I've always wanted to end my career with a Cardinals uniform on. That was one of my dreams and this is an opportunity to achieve that. I love a challenge. I love to compete."

Johnson starred for the Mets but struggled his final four seasons, hitting .219 with 31 home runs in 352 games.

But he said the summer spent working with the Devil Rays minor-leaguers got him thinking again about fundamentals and convinced he could improve his play. Then he became motivated in November watching Evander Holyfield dethrone heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

"Here's this guy and everyone says, "He's done. He's got no chance to win.' And he came out and dominated the guy, and he beat the odds," Johnson said.

"I thought, you know, I could do that."

Today, they all do.

They're back

More than a half-dozen players have returned to the playing field this spring after taking at least a year off. Here's a look at seven, with age, their 1997 team and their last season in the majors:

P Scott Bailes, 35, Rangers

1992 Angels, 3-1, 7.45 ERA in 32 games

OF Kevin Bass, 37, Angels

1995 Orioles, .244, 5 HR, 32 RBI in 111 games

IF Kelly Gruber, 34, Orioles

1993 Angels, .277, 3 HR, 9 RBI in 18 games

IF/OF Howard Johnson, 36, Mets

1995 Cubs, .195, 7 HR, 22 RBI in 87 games

IF/OF Cory Snyder, 34, Cardinals

1994 Dodgers, .235, 6 HR, 18 RBI in 73 games

OF Andy Van Slyke, 36, Cardinals

1995 Orioles/Phillies, .224, 6 HR, 24 RBI in 80 games

P Mitch Williams, 32, Royals

1995 Angels, 1-2, O saves, 6.75 ERA in 20 games

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