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Tuesday, September 2, 2008
LIFE OF REILLY

By Rick Reilly

Mitch Jones is the biggest fish in the puddle, the fastest snail on the beach, the best understudy on Broadway. No active player has hit more home runs in the minor leagues—nearly 200 dingers—without getting a shot at the bigs.

Nine years now, and not even an at-bat. These September call-ups could be his last chance. He's 30, and 30-year-olds get called up every other pyramid. Why didn't he make it? Because he was dumb enough to start his career at the exact wrong time in baseball history: during the Pharmacy Era, when old guys got young with syringes and injured guys got well with shipments from Mexico.

Is he hacked off? Sort of. "I got screwed," says Jones, now with the Las Vegas 51s. "But I'm not the only one."

Is he mad enough to sue? Because he should. I think minor league players like Jones should file a class action, restraint of trade lawsuit against Major League Baseball because they sat stewing in the minors while big leaguers were allowed to cheat.

Take Shawn Garrett of the Tacoma Rainiers, who, at 29, has played the most games (more than 1,200 since 1998) without being called up. He's had to participate in four cow-milking contests on the field. He's had to wear Hawaiian Night jerseys, camo jerseys, pink jerseys and tie-dye jerseys. He's a lifetime .290 hitter and never had day one in the majors. In 2004, playing part of the season for the Rockies' Triple-A affiliate, he hit .371, and you'd have thought his phone was broken.

Garrett, who's been on 15 teams, can't explain it. "Maybe you can find out," he says. "There must be something I'm not doing."

Yeah, steroids. THEIR DREAMS DIED IN CLUBHOUSE JOHNS.

Was he ever tempted? "You know, I've seen guys go on the stuff and get called up. It wasn't even a secret. We knew what was going on. But I never considered it for two seconds. There's right and there's wrong. Those guys have to look themselves in the mirror. I have two little girls. Who knows what the long-term side effects are?"

You think the steroids issue is dead, but it isn't. These guys live with the fallout every day. Their dreams died in big league clubhouse johns. I'm telling you: lawsuit. Stanford labor law professor emeritus William Gould IV says the idea "is very interesting" but that they'd need to prove three things to win:

1) A correlation between steroid use and better performance. (Please.)

2) That baseball turned a blind eye to steroid use. (Exhibit A: baseballšs own Mitchell Report. It blames Bud Selig and players association COO Gene Orza for allowing steroids to spread like crabgrass. Mitchell said there was a "code of silence" in baseball. You think? Oriole David Segui told his GM that he wanted to go to Florida to pick up juice, and the GM never reported it. A Twins visiting clubhouse attendant found a used syringe and told manager Tom Kelly, who never reported it. The thing has more conspiracies than an Oliver Stone movie.)

3) "Nonstatutory labor exemption considerations," Gould IV says. That's just so complicated it makes our head ache, but a good shark would gobble it right up.

Jones played in the Yankees' farm system from 2000 to 2006 as a corner outfielder and first baseman. He hit 39 HRs in a season, and nobody in the Bronx even blinked. That's because the Yankees had Jason Giambi at first and Gary Sheffield in right. And guess who were both cited in the Mitchell Report? Giambi and Sheffield.

Tori Spelling could win this case!

"Man, I look at what those guys make," says Jones, who's never driven anything nicer than a Toyota pickup, "and I think, That could've been me."

What happened to Jones on May 19, 2006, alone ought to be worth a few mil in punitive damages. He was in Richmond when the Yankees called him up, emergency style. He raced to the airport, flew to LaGuardia, got in a cab, had to talk his way into Yankee Stadium, picked up his uniform, called his dad to tell him ("I'd always dreamed of the day I'd make that call," Jones says), sat next to Sheffield in the dugout (oh, irony!) and … never got into the game.

Afterward, Joe Torre called him into his office and said, "Man, I hate to do this to you, but we're sending you back down." Jones was, naturally, crushed. But the worst part was still to come:

"I had to call my dad back."

He hasn't been up since.

Now Jones is in the Dodger organization, and guess who's the Dodger manager? Torre.

Hey, Joe, call him up right now, and we'll ask the lawyers to go easy on you during the cross.

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