Rozner: Otto remembers 'Homestead Hobos' as free-agent camp begins

 
 
Updated 2/13/2018 6:25 AM
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  • With so many free agents still unsigned, they'll have their own spring training in Florida. Former Cubs player and broadcaster Dave Otto did the same in 1995.

    With so many free agents still unsigned, they'll have their own spring training in Florida. Former Cubs player and broadcaster Dave Otto did the same in 1995. Daily Herald file photo

Every professional athlete knows the moment it's over.

Few get to plan it. Few have a say in it. Even fewer have it happen in as ridiculous a setting as the one in which Dave Otto saw it occur.

It was April 1995 in Homestead, Florida, the site of an impromptu training camp set up for unemployed baseball players, far less organized or publicized than the one opening this week in Bradenton, Florida, for the same purpose.

While this winter's labor unrest has brought the current crop of free agents much exposure, the free agents of 1995 were in a much different place, as it were.

During the strike that began the previous August, the owners had unilaterally imposed rules and went through spring training with replacement players, prepared to start the season with ragtag rosters.

But just days before the season was scheduled to start, U.S. District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor -- now on the Supreme Court -- upheld an NLRB ruling against the owners. The strike ended, the Basic Agreement rules reverted to the expired CBA and major league players with jobs reported to camp a few days later.

With the regular season to start in about three weeks after a truncated spring training, hundreds of free agents scrambled to sign contracts, but at least 150 remained unsigned when camps opened, and about half that many wound up as "Homestead Hobos."

One of them was 30-year-old Dave Otto, the former second round pick (Oakland) out of Elk Grove High School, who had been productive as a reliever for the woeful 1994 Cubs.

But a new regime was in place, Otto was cut loose and he signed with the Royals as a nonroster invitee to spring training.

"I went to camp at the normal time in February, but up front I told them I wouldn't be a replacement player," Otto remembers. "Two or three weeks into camp, all of a sudden they asked several of us to be replacement players. When we said no, they sent us home for a week.

"A week later they brought us back."

But Royals owner David Glass, then the CEO of Walmart, was a noted anti-union exec, and when the strike ended he dumped some veterans that had been in camp on minor-league deals and refused to cross the picket line.

"My father-in-law had passed away so I was home when the strike ended," Otto said. "I called the Royals and asked them where they wanted me to go, to big-league camp or Omaha (AAA)?

"They said, 'We'll call you back.' They did and said, 'You're released.'

"The thing is, I had an offer from the Orioles over the winter and (owner) Peter Angelos was a strong union guy (and the only owner to vote against replacement players).

"Guess I should have taken that one. I didn't have a crystal ball.

"But now I was in limbo. It was April 1. That's how I wound up in Homestead."

Cleveland had started construction in 1991 on a spring training facility in Homestead, but in 1992, Hurricane Andrew nearly destroyed it. While it was being rebuilt, the Grapefruit League abandoned that area of Florida and the Indians never moved in.

The site was available and the players association grabbed it for free-agent spring training, renting it for three weeks at a cost of $60,000.

There were players, coaches, managers, trainers, clubbies and even public relations types all looking for work, and some of them showed up in South Florida.

Among the players in camp at some point were Dave Magadan, Benito Santiago, Todd Stottlemyre, Dave Stewart, Vince Coleman, Jay Howell, Tim Belcher, Andy Van Slyke, Frank Viola, Chris Sabo, Mickey Tettleton and Lonnie Smith.

"I guess we started with about 30 guys. Maybe 60 or 70 came through. We'd play intrasquad games. We could have fielded a pretty good team," Otto said. "Most everybody there got a job in the majors or the minors.

"Guys started signing and after a week or two there wasn't enough for a game anymore, so we started playing semipro teams, basically softball players.

"I pitched against one of those teams."

And that was the moment for Otto.

"I threw a fastball and this big guy took a huge cut and popped it up," Otto says, now laughing hysterically. "He throws the bat down and he's swearing the whole way down to first base, like he should have hit it a mile.

"That's when I looked around this empty park and said, 'I'm done.'

"The moment you know your career is over is when a softball player is swinging out of his shoes and thinks he should have taken you deep.

"There had been a few people looking for autographs when it started, but the last day I drove in with Jay Howell and there was no one there.

"I said (sarcastically), 'I'm not signing one autograph today.'

"It was me and Jay and Vince Coleman. That was all. It was like 'The Island of Misfit Toys.' I played long toss with Jay and that was it. We went home."

That summer, Otto finished his MBA at Northwestern and has thrived in the business world, mixing in some broadcasting along the way.

A couple days ago when I texted him, Otto happened to have just passed through Homestead on his way to Key West.

"I kid you not, we just went through there and I was telling my oldest son the story of the Hobos. He knew nothing about it," said the 53-year-old Otto, laughing again. "You had to see it to believe it.

"I might throw a little while I'm down here. Nice and warm. Get the word out. I'm still unsigned."

And, apparently, still a Homestead Hobo.

• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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