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By invitation only

It's one of those staples of the always-compelling Transactions column. You see it just about every day of every winter:

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS SIGNED JOE NFXBZYTZFK -- AND INVITED HIM TO SPRING TRAINING.

It sounds so cool, so formal, so dignified: "Invited to spring training."

So we've always wondered. Do these guys really get an invitation, on expensive paper, in a weird-shaped envelope? Do they open it up, thinking they've just been invited to a wedding?

"You'd better call my agent about that," says Pirates invitee Henry Rodriguez. "If they send an invitation, it never comes to me. It has to go to the agent."

"I didn't get any invitation," says Devil Rays invitee Todd Jones. "They did send me a minor-league contract, though, with the Montgomery Biscuits -- for 12 grand a month."

"Nah, there's no invitation," says Devil Rays invitee Mike Williams. "Just addendum, paragraph two: 'You are invited to major-league camp.' "

And so ... another myth shattered. There's no such thing as an invitation, even for those who know they're invited. If that doesn't bring a guy back to earth, what will?

"Hey, I got my minor-league insurance card in the mail last month," Jones reports. "But I wouldn't say it came in decorative framing."

Four years ago in Detroit, Jones got a fireman-of-the-year award. This year, he got a minor-league insurance card. Four years ago, he was an All-Star. Now he's a different kind of All-Star -- an Invited to Spring Training All-Star.

At least he has plenty of company. Fortunately for the Invited to Spring Training All-Stars, no one cares if teams bring 40 players to spring training or 140.

So some of these clubs haul in every name they can get to sign on the dotted line -- and invite them all to spring training, for the world's most rewarding fantasy camp.

Life sure would be heaven for the Invited to Spring Training All-Stars if the season could be just like spring training, and the only limit on rosters was the limit on lockers that will fit in one room.

"Boy, that would be great," laughs Rodriguez, who owns one big-league hit (in 28 at-bats) since 2000. "But right now, in this camp, I bet we've got 70-75 guys. If teams had to pay 75 guys their $300,000-$350,000, that would be painful. I don't think that would happen."

Yeah, that 75-man roster is never coming soon to any major league near them. So the Invited to Spring Training All-Stars are well aware of the realities of a 25-man-roster world. And by the same token, we should try to be well aware that behind every invite is a real person, with a different reason for pursuing the ultimate invitation.

They come in all shapes, all sizes, all ages -- these Invited to Spring Training All-Stars.

Some are 19 years old, only there because they were No. 1 picks who asked for their invitations as one of their contract demands.

Some are guys from the other end of the baseball universe -- guys who have spent all but a few weeks of the last 14 years kicking around the minor leagues, waiting for their chance to turn into the next Scott Podsednik.

Guys kind of like Adam Hyzdu.

Hyzdu is a one-time No. 1 pick himself, you might recall -- back in 1990. The Giants took him with the 15th overall selection, one pick after Todd Van Poppel, five ahead of Mike Mussina.

Now, at age 32, with nearly 5,000 minor-league at-bats on his résumé but barely 300 in the big leagues, the unofficial Mayor of Altoona has arrived in the Red Sox camp. Hoping somehow to stick. And win.

"You know, I got a taste of what some of these (stars around him) went through when I was in Altoona," chuckles Hyzdu, the first great star in the history of the Double-A Altoona Curve. "I'd go into Wal Mart -- and the pharmacist would come out to talk to me. Everywhere I'd go out to eat, I'd get free meals. It was madness. I've always said it was like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You can't explain it."

He can explain what he's doing in Fort Myers, Fla., though. The Red Sox were interested enough to invite him. So here he is.

In some ways, that doesn't make him much different from the other Invited to Spring Training All-Stars. But in other ways, it does, if only because so many of their names are so much more familiar than his (except in Altoona).

Most of your Invited to Spring Training All-Stars, you see, are blasts from somebody's past. You know their names. You just know them from another time and place, when their lights were bright and their contracts were guaranteed.

"I really don't mind this," says Jones, who found himself in this mess after compiling a 7.08 ERA for the Rockies and Red Sox last year. "I'm actually glad that I've been able to see all the perspectives.

"I was the Astros' No. 1 prospect. I was an established star in Detroit. And now I'm a minor-league invitee in spring training. It'll make a great book some day. All I've got to do now is cut the grass and water the infield, and I'll have done it all."

But when we went looking for the ultimate Invited to Spring Training All-Star, we found ourselves coming back to Henry Rodriguez, a man who would have no ticket back into baseball whatsoever if there were no such thing as these spring invitations.

It's seven years now since Rodriguez was such a hero in Montreal (where he hit 62 homers in two years in 1997-98) that he was bombarded with O Henry candy bars every time he went deep.

"Even in Chicago, they threw that candy, in '98, '99, 2000," he says. "It was fun. I still eat them."

But he has had a little too much time to eat them lately. He hurt his back on the last day of spring training in 2001. Then he just about vanished off the baseball earth. He tried to make brief comebacks with the 2001 Yankees and 2002 Expos, but his back wasn't up to it.

So he took a year and a half off from any kind of baseball, surfaced this winter in the Dominican, looked good enough that a Pirates scout recommended him. And now, amazingly, he's in such good shape and his bat looks so quick, it wouldn't be a shock if he actually made the team -- even though, in the words of Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon, "he's damn near as old as me."

Well, not quite. McClendon is 45. Rodriguez is 36. But we all know what the odds are of a 36-year-old guy with one hit in three years making a real, live major-league team. That, even Rodriguez says, would be "pretty amazing." Could happen, though.

"I've worked so hard to get here," he says, "that if I go home, I'll go home satisfied. But if I make it, all the work will have paid off. That's why I wake up at 6:30 every morning, go to the gym and do all the work I do.

"I'm just happy to be playing baseball," says the captain of our Invited to Spring Training All-Stars, "even if I'm only invited to spring training."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.