It's mid-winter, going on baseball season, so most nights Ricky Ledee drives over to the local public batting cages.
Head down. Weight shift. Hands through.
At 33, he's been through seven organizations in seven seasons. Now he's beginning to wonder.
"I want to play," he says, "but nobody wants me."
Ledee patched together 85 at-bats last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets. He hit .188. The Mets needed a left-handed hitter, traded for Ledee, and for them he hit .094. He wasn't on their postseason roster. Cliff Floyd, who could barely walk from the dugout to the on-deck circle, was. Ledee went home.
Now spring training is a month away, so Ledee's wife, Theresa, feeds miniature, weighted baseballs into the air. He is recovered from a groin injury that stole his strength for most of last season. She is recovering from surgery. Together, around parenting their three young children in Ocala, Fla., they maintain his stroke and, they hope, his career.
She flips those small, heavy balls in short arcs. He swings a thin bat that more resembles a broomstick, and the balls thwap-thwap from wood to net.
See the ball. Hard front side. Throw the barrel.
By the end of last season, some in the Mets' organization believed Ledee was ready to retire. Always on the introspective side, Ledee, they said, seemed distant and defeated. Maybe it was the injuries. Maybe it was the .188. Maybe it was the constant movement, from Philadelphia to San Francisco to L.A. to New York since 2004 alone.
Most of free agency's big names and big money are gone. In a rather light offseason for talent, baseball owners outdid themselves, spending $1.5 billion on free agents.
Steve Finley believes he can play another season or three.
It would be interesting to see Darin Erstad and his perpetual, interchangeable Gold Gloves in the National League.
Bernie Williams couldn't possibly play in another uniform. Could he?
Can't Trot Nixon play every day somewhere?
This is their time of year, the fifth starters and fourth outfielders and 25th men. Pushed from their primes by too many seasons or too many miles or too many injuries, they've been put off by two months, passed over and picked over. Most of the starting jobs are gone. So, Phil Nevin waits. And Shannon Stewart waits. So do Preston Wilson and Brian Lawrence and Ramon Ortiz and Craig Wilson.
Then there's Ledee, kind and affable and easy to root for. He's too young to be old, too talented to be done, and yet wonders what's next, if anything.
"I have no idea," he says.
When I think of him, he's in a New York Yankees uniform, a 24-year-old rookie, smiling, shrugging, lugging around that "next Mickey Mantle" thing or whatever it was New York was laying on him at the time.
It was 1998. The Yankees were the best team I ever saw. Ledee moved silently, respectfully among the superstars, and there was hardly getting out of their way: Derek Jeter, Darryl Strawberry, Williams, Mariano Rivera, Tino Martinez, Tim Raines, Paul O'Neill, David Cone, Wells, Andy Pettitte, Hideki Irabu, Chili Davis, Orlando Hernandez.
There wasn't a lot of room for Ledee, and not much use for him. Scott Brosius batted ninth and drove in 98 runs. The team scored nearly 1,000. Ten players hit at least 10 home runs, none as many as 30. This was a machine.
Ledee's time was out there somewhere, beyond this Yankees team, when Chad Curtis moved on or when O'Neill or Raines retired. So, he ran between Columbus and New York, playing in 42 big-league games. He mopped up around the veterans, took his at-bats where they came, and showed more in the way of athletic grace and promise than hard numbers.
But, when October arrived, left field had become troublesome for manager Joe Torre. Curtis wasn't hitting. Raines was aging. And Shane Spencer was less tested than Ledee even.
So, in Game 1 of the World Series against the San Diego Padres, Ledee started in left field. The Padres started 18-game winner Kevin Brown. Because Ledee batted left-handed and was a capable defender, Torre took the flier.
"Yeah," Ledee says, "that's still so fresh in my mind. It feels like it was two months ago."
Of course, Ledee hit .600 in that series. He was four for six with a walk and a sacrifice fly against Brown in Games 1 and 4.
The Yankees won in four and Ledee, it seemed, had arrived, at least seven months earlier than expected.
Just eight years later, he's a career .244 hitter, and without a promise for another season. His agent, Sam Levinson, told him teams have called.
"They really want to give me minor-league deals," he says. "I understand. I was hurt. So, that kind of hurt me."
He says he hopes to hear something encouraging in the next few days. He says he's sure last season wasn't really his last. He says he'll stay at it.
Balance. Hips. Extension.
"I'm going to keep battling," he says.