Old hopes spring eternal Returns: Training camps field unexpected comebackers Van Slyke, Gruber, Trout. They were forgotten and, until now, gone.


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Mitch Williams? Back. Howard Johnson? Unretired. Steve Trout? Back at the age of 39 -- eight years after he last pitched in the major leagues.

They are the Last Chance All-Stars. And the lure of baseball won't let them quit. At least a dozen players are trying to resuscitate their careers this spring after at least two years out of the big leagues, and lots more who missed just last season. If they're any good, the Comeback Player of the Year Award might be tougher to win this year than the MVP.

"Either that," said 36-year-old St. Louis Cardinals comebacker Andy Van Slyke, "or the guy who sticks will be the guy who wins it."

Van Slyke, an ESPN voice last summer, already had taken a broadcasting job with the Cardinals, but he kept noticing his aching back didn't hurt anymore. He asked the Cardinals for a chance. They gave him one -- as a third baseman.

Reminded that before he became a Gold Glove center fielder, he once said he played third base like Brooks -- Mel Brooks -- Van Slyke replied: "Mel Brooks is making a comeback."

But as Van Slyke worked out the other day, the V, A and L in his name were literally falling off his back.

"Hmmm," he said. "I guess they're planning on having somebody else's name on this shirt pretty soon."

Later, as he pondered what his name might look like with those letters missing, he quipped: "It's like 'Wheel of Fortune' on my back."

Well, he can buy a vowel. But he can't buy his youth again. And neither can these other Last Chance All-Stars:

Mitch Williams: Still just 32, but no longer No. 99 (he's wearing 49 now for the Kansas City Royals). Last seen retiring for the third time in August after compiling a 10.20 ERA for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Revealed last week that he almost qualified for the U.S. finals in a steer-roping competition last fall -- but missed his last steer.

Steve Trout: Auditioning in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor-league camp. Last year in the big leagues: 1989. Last year with a winning record in the big leagues: 1985. Got a chance after persuading Pirates scout Bill Bryk to watch him throw and firing 90 mph within a week. Bryk then called general manager Cam Bonifay and said: "Stranger things have happened."

Howard Johnson: Age 36. Last year in the big leagues: 1995 (.195, with 46 strikeouts in 169 at-bats, for the Chicago Cubs). Last good year: 1991 (38 home runs). Abruptly unretired after a year as a minor-league coach with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. When he arrived in the New York Mets' camp, teammate John Franco said: "I thought he was coming back to be a coach. Either that or to cork our bats."

Kelly Gruber: Age 34. Last year in the big leagues: 1993, when he appeared in only 18 games with the California Angels. Two years later, he underwent fusion surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck. The former All-Star third baseman is in camp with the Orioles trying to make it as a utility player.

Others: Left-handed pitcher Juan Agosto (gone since '93, back at 39 with the Royals). Left-handed pitcher Scott Bailes (gone since '92, back with the Texas Rangers). Outfielder Cory Snyder (out since '94, back with the Cardinals after hitting 75 homers in a slow-pitch softball league).

Will any of them make it? Will all of them make it? Who knows? But many great scripts are yet to be written.

Asked how he would write "his" script, Van Slyke replied: "There is no ending to this script yet, because I don't know what the journey's going to be like yet. I'm a lot like Christopher Columbus. I'm sure he couldn't write a script, either. He was just hoping the world was round. And I'm just hoping my back stays flat."

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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