A close look at three nonroster players at spring training
Up and down Florida and across Arizona's Valley of the Sun they show up.
They carry with them equipment bags from their last stop, perhaps from some Double-A outpost or their most recent major-league city.
They also carry with them dreams, dreams of making it to the big leagues for the first time or for one last shot.
They're the nonroster invitees to spring training, players in camp on minor-league contracts looking to hook on in the majors, but most knowing full well they'll get the tap on the shoulder at some point letting them know they're headed out, at least for now, perhaps not to be seen or heard from again.
The Cubs have the usual assortment of nonroster men in their camp at Mesa, Arizona. Some are minor-league prospects getting their first taste of a big-league clubhouse. Others are vets coming from overseas or coming back from injury.
Each has a story to tell. Here are three of them.
The 'adorable redhead'
One of the lasting images I have of Matt Murton is of then-Cubs manager Lou Piniella talking with Murton on the field at HoHoKam Park before a spring game in 2007.
Piniella kept talking. And talking, almost until the teams were ready to take the field for the game.
Turns out Piniella was trying to get Murton to incorporate a leg kick into his swing, something Murton said kicked in, so to speak, at some point during his six-year stay in Japan, with Hanshin, from 2010-2015.
Piniella always loved working with hitters, and one day he called Murton the "adorable redhead" in reference to Murton's hair.
Murton eventually found a home away from home in Japan with Hanshin, putting up a career line of .310/.352/.437 with 77 home runs and 417 RBI.
Now 34, he's looking to reconnect with the first team that gave him a shot in the majors. There is another connection. Murton originally was drafted by the Boston Red Sox under Theo Epstein, now the president of the Cubs. He came to the Cubs in the 2004 trade that also brought Nomar Garciaparra from Boston.
Murton is looking to come full circle, even though his spring has been put on hold by a recent appendectomy in Arizona.
"I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity to play overseas in Japan," he said. "Moving over there in 2010, I kind of figured I'd go for a year or two and then see what happens. My intentions were always to want to come back and play here in the U.S. again. But one to two years turned into six.
"I'm very fortunate to have been the longest tenured foreign position player in team history. It came down to, 'Do I want to start again with another organization in Japan, or is this my window to come back to the U.S. and get a chance?'"
Murton's major-league numbers with the Cubs, Oakland and Colorado are .286/.352/.436 with 29 home runs. The opportunities in the big leagues were limited for him, so he found some validation in Japan.
"I was given an opportunity to go out and play every day," he said. "You'd like to believe that you were able to grow as a player and you come back with more of an understanding of who you are. I think that perspective helps because when I was here at 25 years old, you're still trying to find yourself.
"The way I look at it, in life you get one shot at things. Your window as a ballplayer is short. So I'm at a point now where I'm going to throw it out there, and I'm going to give it what I have. I don't want my baseball career to end without giving this an opportunity."
The kid from Idaho:
To play baseball in Idaho is challenging in a cold spring. Just ask right-handed pitcher Stephen Fife, who has scraped snow off the fields a few times.
"Yeah, we'd take the old golf cart out to the infield and drag it and drag the outfield to get the snow off of it," he said. "Some cold weather there."
Fife, 29, is on the mend from Tommy John surgery he had late in 2014. He's also realistic.
"Stay healthy," he said. "I think I'll head to Triple-A; the starting five is pretty solid here. Just go to Triple-A, I hope, and pitch well there, and if the opportunity arises, then make the most of it."
Fife also was a Red Sox draftee in 2008. He has pitched in 18 big-league games, with the Dodgers, going 4-6 with a 3.66 ERA.
"A lot of this game is who you know and who is in your corner," he said. "I had a couple other offers. I just didn't feel like they were quite the right fit. It seemed like everything pointed toward coming here."
In 1999, Fife was a member of the first team from Idaho to play in the Little League World Series. What kind of experience was that?
"A pretty special one," he said. "We didn't know, a bunch of 12-year-old kids flying all over the U.S., having really no idea. It really wasn't until we got back … actually it was in Williamsport. We were playing Ping-Pong in the room, and the games were on ESPN, and we were like, 'What the heck is going on here?'
"It was a really special time. I'm still close with probably over half the guys I played with. So it's been kind of a lifelong bonding experience for me, and it's definitely a special thing to go through, especially when there's only four teams from the U.S."
Tim Federowicz was on his way to making a new start with the San Diego Padres last spring when he tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee, costing him the season.
"It was tough," he said. "I was in a good spot in San Diego. Going through the rehab process for the first time, coming back was a little tougher. I ended up tearing my quad toward the end of the season. Just a tough season. It's good to feel healthy again."
Federowicz, 28, was a seventh-round draft pick of the Red Sox in 2008.
"I had a connection with Theo," he said. "They reached out, kind of at the last minute, and I liked the situation. It kind of fits perfectly for what I need to do to get back to playing again. I think it's going to be a good spot for me."
Federowicz has 89 games of big-league experience, all with the Dodgers. He has a line of .194/.247/.300 with 5 homers. In 2014, he batted .328 with 14 homers for Class AAA Albuquerque.
If he stays healthy, he figures he can make an impression, especially with catching always in demand.
"There are 29 other teams," he said. "I just need to show that I can still play. I know I belong in the big leagues, so if I can prove that I can get back to where I was, I think there will be a lot of teams interested.
"I feel like I'm a great defensive catcher. That's probably what I focus on most. But what people really don't understand is that I can hit, too. That's another thing I need to prove at the major-league level, which I haven't done. I proved it at the minor-league level.
"Once that's there, I feel like I can be one of the best."
Nonroster notablesMany well-known players have gone to spring training on minor league contracts as nonroster invitees. Here are some notable names, with former Cubs and White Sox players noted:
AtlantaBlake Lalli (Cubs)
Chris Volstad (Cubs)
ArizonaWesley Wright (Cubs)
BaltimoreJeff Beliveau (Cubs)
BostonCarlos Marmol (Cubs)
Tom Gorzelanny (Cubs)
Anthony Recker (Cubs)
ColoradoGonzalez German (Cubs)
Brian Schlitter (Cubs)
DetroitLendy Castillo (Cubs)
Nate Schierholtz (Cubs)
Houston Wandy Rodriguez
Kansas CityClint Barmes
MiamiDylan Axelrod (White Sox)
Eric Young Jr.
San DiegoPhillip Humber (White Sox)
Carlos Pimentel (Cubs)
San FranciscoConor Gillaspie (White Sox)
Hak-Ju Lee (Cubs)
SeattleMike Baxter (Cubs)
Casey Coleman (Cubs)
Blake Parker (Cubs)
TorontoDavid Aardsma (Cubs/White Sox)
Tony Campana (Cubs)
Reed Johnson (Cubs)
Nick Masset (White Sox)