Jerry Spradlin let out a tired sigh, removed his cap and ran a hand through his thinning blond hair.
"It's a long story," he said. "How far back you want to go?"
It was a brutally hot and humid July day, even by Washington standards, but Spradlin, clad in a heat-soaked, black Bowie Baysox jersey, seemed unaffected. He leaned forward, his face squinted into a map of tiny folds, and started from the beginning. Speaking slowly, with a hint of Southern California surfer in his voice, he seemed like a man in no particular hurry.
But Spradlin is acutely aware that he is running out of time. He is 37, less than three years removed from surgery on his throwing arm and nearly four years removed from his last big league appearance.
Though he was considered washed up by most of professional baseball a year ago, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound right-hander's grueling and pride-swallowing comeback finally has yielded what he has yearned for: "a fair chance," he said. "Not just a couple bad games and you're out the door."
The opportunity comes from the Baltimore Orioles -- an organization, not coincidentally, in desperate need of pitching help. It was Baltimore that salvaged pitcher Dave Borkowski off waivers last year, recently moved him up from Class AAA Ottawa and watched him pick up a win against Tampa Bay on July 5.
That same evening -- just 14 days after the Orioles rescued him from the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks of the independent Atlantic League and placed him on the Baysox, Baltimore's Class AA affiliate -- Spradlin was informed he would be moved up to Ottawa. One step from the majors. One step from finishing an improbable comeback.
"My agent was teasing me," Spradlin said. "He said, 'If you make it back this year, we're turning it into a movie.' "
Spradlin's baseball odyssey certainly is the stuff screenplays are made of -- though some would argue they already have been written.
" 'The Rookie,' " said Baysox Manager Dave Trembley, referring to the 2002 film in which Dennis Quaid portrayed Jim Morris, a high school coach who was convinced by his team to give the pros another shot and became the oldest rookie in the major leagues with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999. "It's very similar."
In recent years, however, Spradlin identified a bit more with Crash Davis, the aging catcher portrayed by Kevin Costner in the 1988 film "Bull Durham," who is seemingly trapped in the minors.
"It's definitely hard," Spradlin said last week in the cramped Bowie locker room. "When you're used to making really good money and you go to making hardly anything, it's a little humbling."
In Bowie, Spradlin was 12 years older than the average player. But like Costner's famous character, Spradlin warmed to the idea of sharing wisdom with his teammates and quickly became a clubhouse sage.
"Everybody talks to him," Bowie pitcher Dave Crouthers, 24, said a week into Spradlin's Baysox stint. "Sometimes you're kind of intimidated by a guy because of his age and his experience, but he's so laid back."
Spradlin's disposition can be attributed to his love of the game, his unwavering belief that his time in the minors is the result of bad timing and bad luck -- not an indictment of his ability -- and the support of his wife, Paulette. In the first three years of their marriage, they moved 14 times. It hasn't gotten easier since.
"It was exciting in a lot of ways, but the physical move each time is definitely tiring," said Paulette, who was a professional singer when she met Jerry. "Going from team to team, you have to figure things out for yourself. There's not really a welcoming committee, especially for wives. That was my job. To try to figure that stuff out -- the home life part of it."
Spradlin was drafted in 1988 by Cincinnati. He worked his way through the Reds' farm system and reached the big leagues for the first time in 1993. He was sent back to Class AAA for most of 1994, however, starting a transient career that has seen him repeatedly bounce up and down -- to the bigs, back to the minors. He's played for 10 Major League Baseball organizations. In 310 games over nine major league seasons, he compiled a 17-19 record with 11 saves and a 4.75 ERA.
Spradlin's biggest setback came in 2001, when he felt he was playing his best and just after he was called up from Class AAA to the St. Louis Cardinals. Before he was activated, a physical revealed tears in his rotator cuff and labrum. He moved home, had surgery and, after 10 months of rehab, the player who made a base salary of $962,500 in 2000 was pulling in $1,500 a month playing with has-beens and never-will-bes for the Long Beach Breakers of the independent Western Baseball League.
The league went bankrupt after the 2002 season and, shortly after Spradlin was released by the Arizona Diamondbacks two weeks after spring training in 2003, he was staring at the same fate. In October of that year, he and Paulette sold their house to stay afloat.
"That was the most trying thing because we lived off of everything we saved for a year and we thought, 'We can't do this any more,' " Spradlin said. "I figured if I hadn't gotten injured, I'd have been playing in the bigs. That was hard."
To make matters worse, Spradlin felt he had missed out on numerous tryouts because of the negligence of his agent at the time, whom he subsequently fired.
"It was definitely a tough time," Paulette Spradlin said. "But I told him I wanted him to exhaust every possible opportunity because it was something he really wanted to do and something he could do. I didn't want him to think I was holding him back or didn't think he could do it."
After several failed tryouts this spring with major league franchises, Spradlin took a job in the Atlantic League. Albeit against lesser competition, Spradlin looked sharp as the Riversharks' closer -- putting together 222/3 consecutive scoreless innings and earning eight saves. More importantly, his arm finally seemed to be healthy, and his fastball was reaching 96 mph -- near what it topped out at before the injury.
Spradlin's new agent, friend Michael Shea, contacted Darrell "Doc" Rodgers, Baltimore's director of minor league operations, to alert him of Spradlin's progress. The Orioles and Rodgers, who played in the Reds' minor league system at the same time as Spradlin and served in Cincinnati's front office when Spradlin reached the majors with the Reds, were impressed by Spradlin's statistics and decided to give him a chance with Bowie after making several calls to teams he had faced in the Atlantic League.
In his two weeks with the Baysox, Spradlin looked polished -- "I think he's got a couple good years in the big leagues in him," said Baysox pitcher Matt Bruback -- and more mature than old. Rodgers added the time Spradlin spent recovering from surgery probably added years to the end of his career, and Trembley said age was far from the bottom line for major league clubs.
"If you can get hitters out, you can get them out," Trembley said. "And if you can get them out, there's going to be an opportunity for you to pitch . . . We're pulling for him."