At 10:06 this morning, the first Orioles of spring bounded up the dugout steps and onto the hot green field of Miami Stadium to begin spring training.
As far as Don Stanhouse and Ross Grimsley were concerned, they were several days late. The two richest walk-on tryouts in the history of baseball have been here for days, eager to get started rehabilitating their baseball reputations. Both have been training for months with last-chance desperation for this day.
Earlier this week, Stanhouse walked down the locker room tunnel, then stood at the locked gate to the field--silhouetted like a character in a movie. After issuing his bloodcurdling Stan the Man Unusual bellow, Stanhouse intoned, "Open the gate . . . I feel like I've been dead for two years . . . Stan the Man Unusual is going to be reborn."
This morning, in a touch of ironic juxtaposition, the Orioles signed 30-year-old left hander Mike Flanagan to a five-year contract believed to be worth about $2.75 million, starting at $500,000 per year, then gradually escalating. Grimsley, 32, and Stanhouse, 31, know all about such contracts--and how little contentment they buy in the baseball world.
In '77, Grimsley left the Orioles to become a $3 million free agent. In '79, Stanhouse went that route for $2 million. Now, they're back.
Both were released outright last season, without throwing a pitch--the ultimate baseball insult. Both found themselves unwanted by any team except the one they abandoned. "Old Orioles never die, they just come back," said Manager Earl Weaver, who, at least for print, calls his bizarre pair of old favorites "the Unusual One and the Mystic."
Both have come here on a look-see basis as lean and hungry--with an almost desperate air about them--as if they didn't have a dime in the world.
"I have a contract. I just don't have a team," said Stanhouse. "My bank account is in Los Angeles, but my heart is in Baltimore."
Their amazement and chagrin is redoubled by the fact that, as baseball driftwood, they are the biggest potential bargains in the baseball universe. The Dodgers must pay Stanhouse $425,000 a year for the next three seasons, and the Indians must pay Grimsley about the same for two more years. If the Orioles sign either, or both, their price tag will be a pittance--the major league minimum of $35,000. Yet nobody but the Orioles wants even to look at these two appealing baseball eccentrics.
"Neither one's old or has any serious injury. If they're healthy and pitch like we know they have in the past, they could be huge steals," said Ray Miller, the Orioles' pitching coach. He sees former 20-game winner Grimsley as spectacularly overqualified for the up-for-grabs job of left-handed long relief man, and would love to see Stanhouse rounding out a trio of short relief men behind Tim Stoddard and Tippy Martinez.
If motivation counts for anything, Stanhouse and Grimsley will be Cinderfella stories. These aren't a pair of rich guys on a fling because they have nothing better to do.
"How much do I love the game?" said Stanhouse. "Well, 10 days after I got married this winter, I was on my way to Puerto Rico to play winter ball for Ray (Miller)."
"If I have to, I'll go back to the minors," said Grimsley.
To understand their seriousness, their hurt, their determination, one must look back.
In Los Angeles, Stanhouse was widely viewed as the irresponsible free spirit who took the money and ran, claiming injuries for nearly two years until the Dodgers, in disgust, finally released him.
"That's the complete misreading of Stanley's temperament," Miller said. "He was the hardest worker on our staff, and the best student of the hitters in our bullpen . . . I think he desperately wants to prove people were wrong about him."
Grimsley's reputation--after an awful ERA slide from '78 through '80 of 3.05, 5.36, 6.58--is that he is simply a crafty, alleged grease baller who is washed up.
Both Stanhouse and Grimsley carry memories that cause galling bitterness.
"When my release papers were ready to sign, I went to Dodger Stadium myself, dressed up, suit and tie, my head up high," Stanhouse said. "It was one of the coldest things I ever had to walk through. Everybody in the office looked at me like I had leprosy.
"The release didn't hit me until about a week later, sitting on the balcony with my fiancee, watching a Dodger game at home, watching the sun set over the ocean. I said, 'Do you realize they've taken away the one thing I really, really know how to do in my life?' They took it away from me . . . Boom, you're gone, you're done. We're not going to call you and see if your arm's all right or ask, 'How do you feel?' Boom, you're gone. No Christmas cards, nothing any more. Boom, you're gone. I said, ' . . . It's all over . . . What am I going to do?' I was in shock for quite awhile. I kept working out, saying, 'It's not true.'
"Yup, and I'm here now . . .
"It ain't over with yet."
"In Cleveland," Grimsley said, "if my money wasn't there on the first and 15th, I'd have somebody call and say, 'Get my check the hell over here.' I mean, really, that's how bitter I am toward these people . . . I was discarded, thrown by the wayside, with no courtesy, no respect. Really unfair. It turned me bitter toward the people and toward the game a little, too . . .
"Here, I'll get a fair chance . . .They'll play it honest."
In many ways, Stanhouse and Grimsley are approaching this spring training in the same frame of mind as millions of fans. They want to put the ugly past, contaminated by all the evils bred by money, behind them and return to the simple joys of the game itself.
"I never guessed I'd miss the game so much," said Stanhouse, who thinks he's over the lower back spasms and shoulder aches that tormented him in Los Angeles.
"I'm going to keep pitching as long as I keep enjoying it," Grimsley said. "If it's not here, then I'm going to find someplace else," he said, raising the prospect that he may become the first millionaire ever to return to the bushes for more than a brief brush up.
"Those guys were guinea pigs in the free agent era," said Scott McGregor. "What's happened to them has been an example to everybody in the major leagues that you should look in the mirror pretty good before you make a move. See what you've got. It's always easier to be happy where you've already been happy."
Just what baseball, and the Orioles, need this spring may be a couple of sadder-but-wiser survivors from the shipwreck of free agency.
Washed up on the shore here, rich but hardly content, Stanhouse and Grimsley want to become something unique in baseball history: the first men who, in a sense, decided that they wanted to play the game for nothing.