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Veterans take a shot at Rangers camp

Forever young: Vets aim for another chance

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Sammy Sosa is followed by mobs of fans who want his autographs and reporters who count the number of home runs he hits in batting practice, while upstairs in the Rangers offices, general manager Jon Daniels quietly negotiates a five-year contract extension for Michael Young.

Both are daily watches in Rangers camp. So is the progress of former Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne, who was absent Monday for personal reasons, and Opening Day pitcher Kevin Millwood, whose sore calf muscle has made him a source of daily concern.

People keep an eye on Brad Wilkerson and Hank Blalock, who are coming back from shoulder surgery, and Mark Teixeira, who would be big news if he ever did anything except go about his carefully scripted daily routine in a determined, businesslike manner.

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But it was Henry David Thoreau who once said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

Walden's most famous resident might have been talking about the life of a Spring Training non-roster player, who often toils far from the madding crowds but still holds tight to the Major League dream.

Jamey Wright, once a first-round pick for the Colorado Rockies, has a career record of 67-98 with a .406 winning percentage that is the third-lowest among active pitchers with at least 140 decisions.

But Wright is only 32 and still believes in himself, still believes he can win 20 games and still believes he should be one of the elite pitchers in baseball. His stuff suggests the same thing, and club officials still marvel at what he has to offer as they watch him throw in the bullpen.

But right now, he is just one of 6-8 candidates for the starting rotation with no other guarantee other than that he'll get a fair look.

"I know I can get hitters out and chew up innings," Wright said. "With a little bit of luck, I still have the attitude I can win 20 games. I think I have the stuff and the ability to do it. In my mind, I should be one of the elite pitchers in that league. It hasn't happened yet and that's disappointing. But you've got to put up numbers and be consistent."

Manager Ron Washington can empathize with these guys. He was with the Rangers in 1990 as a non-roster infielder and had a great spring. But the Rangers traded for shortstop Jeff Huson with less than a week to go before Opening Day and Washington found himself on the way to Triple-A Oklahoma. He never played in the Major Leagues again.

"The only thing promised to them is they'll get an opportunity to play," Washington said. "It's all about competition. You can't come in here and stink up the place and expect to make the team. I fully expect them to take advantage of it.

"Those who handle it, show up. Those who don't handle it, show down."

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Jerry Hairston believes he can handle it. He was once the Baltimore Orioles' starting second baseman and still believes he can be an everyday player. But he passed up opportunities to go elsewhere, and is back with the Rangers trying to earn a job as a utility infielder on a team where the starting infielders hate sitting out even one game.

It would seem that he should have gone elsewhere, but Hairston doesn't see it that way.

"Hey, I like it here," Hairston said. "I like the guys here, they're great. I had some offers from other teams, but my gut was telling me to come back here."

He also isn't conceding to the possibility that even if he does make the team, he'll spend all his time on the bench.

"You could have told Mark DeRosa the same thing last year," Hairston said. "You could have told Gary Matthews Jr. that, too. Gary wasn't a starter in this camp last year. Remember? They had Laynce Nix out there."

Desi Relaford aims for the same utility infielder job as Hairston. Relaford didn't even play in the big leagues last year and may have to go to Triple-A Oklahoma before he gets another opportunity. But he has 10 years of Major League experience.

"My whole career I've had to fight for jobs," Relaford said. "But I've survived and won a few of those. I'm no stranger to competition; this is just another chance to prove I can play. I'm trying to worry about what the future holds. At 33, I still feel 25 or 26 years old. I know I can play this game."

They are all over the camp.

Reliever Franklyn German has what scout Don Welke calls a "monster arm," but must show he can throw the ball over the plate. Catcher Guillermo Quiroz was once the 35th-best prospect in baseball; Bruce Chen won 13 games for the Orioles in 2005 and none last year; reliever Willie Eyre helped the Twins win a division title last year; and infielder Matt Kata was with the Arizona Diamondbacks for six weeks in 2004 before suffering a dislocated shoulder that derailed his career.

None see themselves as ready for the Major League graveyard.

"All you can give them is an opportunity," Washington said. "But you never know. One of them just might be that diamond."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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