CAMDEN, N.J. -- Scouts are sure to be roaming the Atlantic League stands more frequently as this summer progresses. But on a comfortable Saturday night in June, you'd have better luck finding a Tyrannosaurus Rex than a big league talent evaluator at Campbell's Field.
That's fine with Long Island Ducks outfielder Carl Everett. He's been fighting a calf injury, so he's limited to first base coaching duty in tonight's game against Camden. Every inning, Everett leaves the dugout and walks leisurely to his post, past water balloon-throwing contests and mini-bazookas launching T-shirts into the stands.
Everett has 1,304 hits, 202 homers and two All-Star Game appearances on his major league résumé. He's banked roughly $45 million in salary and generated enough bad press for a lifetime. The writers in Boston labeled him "C. Everett Kook'' for his views that dinosaurs never roamed the earth and the moon landing was just a hoax.
Everett could win the Nobel Peace Prize one day, and he would still be known as "Jurassic Carl'' in Boston. He's more typecast than George Wendt on "Cheers.''
"That was 16 years ago,'' Everett said. "Everything is repetitive. When are you guys going to come up with something new?''
Well, the latest chapter of his professional career is certainly a twist. At 36, Everett is playing independent ball and spending more on living expenses than he makes in the name of professional redemption. He's determined to walk away on his terms, even if that means taking his hacks in anonymity against the Bridgeport Bluefish or the York Revolution.
"I know I have a lot of good years left in me, and I know a lot of clubs out there know the same thing,'' Everett said. "When I hang it up, I'm the one who has to be satisfied. Anytime I have to make a decision about me, I'm going to make it. No one else is.''
Everett's late-career detour has led him to the Atlantic League, a holding tank for dreamers and a sound, sensible way for major league clubs to fill roster voids without the burden of high development costs.
As big league teams try to pare their developmental budgets and reduce the number of players coming up through the draft, several independent leagues are working feverishly to fill the talent gap. The Atlantic League, which has eight franchises in the Northeast and plans to expand to southern Maryland, the New Jersey Meadowlands and Yonkers, N.Y., in the near future, is the most prominent of the group.
Former major league general manager Joe Klein, who helped found the league 10 years ago, sees it as a perfect parking place for jobless veterans and a source of fun, affordable family entertainment. The cost of an Atlantic League ticket is about what you'd pay to see a movie.
"It's exactly what you see in the minors,'' Klein said, "except we can sell the seats behind first base, because our shortstops don't throw the ball into the stands.''
Players who produce on this stage can earn a trip to greener pastures. Already this summer, the Atlantic League has sold 18 players to minor league clubs, five more to Taiwan and four to Mexico. Since the league's inception, Curtis Pride, Jose Lima, Brendan Donnelly and Joe Borowski are among the players who have used the Atlantic League as a springboard to the majors.
Scan the 2007 rosters, and you'll see a forehead-slapping array of players who have seemingly fallen off the edge of the earth.
Junior Spivey and Quinton McCracken are playing in Bridgeport, while the middle of the Camden Riversharks' lineup features former big leaguers Craig Paquette and Danny Bautista. Camden recently lost Ben Davis, who was signed by the Dodgers. Atlantic League officials are talking to Ruben Sierra and Javy Lopez about spending a portion of their summers here.
Everett's Long Island Ducks are the New York Yankees of the league. The starting infield consists of Damian Rolls at third base, Edgardo Alfonzo at shortstop, Jose Offerman at second and Pete Rose Jr., who now calls himself "P.J.'' Rose, at first base. Former St. Louis Cardinal Donovan Osborne is the best pitcher in the league, and Danny Graves is trying to regain his mojo as the Long Island closer.
Contrary to the knee-jerk perception, life among the independents is a few notches above Shawshank Prison. Atlantic League teams play in spiffy new ballparks filled with enthusiastic and often sizable crowds. Campbell's Field, a charming brick edifice, is a centerpiece to the waterfront renewal in Camden. The park features party suites for the adults and a carousel and play area for the kids.
Still, the amenities aren't what players are accustomed to in the big leagues. Atlantic League teams stay in Holiday Inn Selects and Ramadas -- nice enough digs, but not quite five-star. Players carry their own bags, clean their own spikes and dine on ham and cheese sandwiches before games and pizzas and barbecue afterward.
The salaries here are a relative pittance. Individual team payrolls are $250,000 for the entire summer, and big-name players might earn $2,500 a month. Some veterans take less money so there's a little cash left over for younger kids in need.
Everett, predictably, has his share of gripes with the logistics. He recalls a recent trip to York, when the ballpark wasn't finished and the Ducks had to dress at the hotel. In Camden, there's no heating pad in the trainer's room. Sometimes the Long Island players have to check out of the hotel on getaway day at noon when the game doesn't begin until 7 at night. And the clubhouse spreads were better in "A" ball.
Most Atlantic League players share rooms on the road. But Everett, who hasn't had a roommate since he paired with outfielder Darrell Whitmore in Florida in 1993, draws the line at doubling up.
"There are a lot of pluses to being here,'' Everett said, "but it's still the bushes. I call this the league of misfortune.''
Still, if Everett is bitter, his co-workers have seen no sign of his discontent. Everett has a surprisingly good reputation among teammates. Three springs ago, when he was in training camp with the then-orphan Montreal Expos, Everett thought the food spreads were substandard, so he paid out of his own pocket for upgraded cuisine. He routinely passes along playing tips to the young guys, and considers himself a mentor of sorts.
Last year, the Seattle Mariners were quite content with Everett's professionalism on the field and his comportment in the clubhouse. Their decision to release him was more a reflection of his .360 slugging percentage and .171 batting average with runners in scoring position. "He was simply done,'' said a club official.
Short of sharing a hotel room, Everett will do everything in his power to prove that perception wrong. When Long Island manager Dave LaPoint approached him about batting leadoff or playing center field, Everett replied that he couldn't care less. Just put my name in the lineup every day, he said.
Let's put it this way: Everett's diva tendencies pale in comparison to Jose Canseco's during his tour of the Atlantic League.
"You think you're getting all this dirty laundry with Carl,'' LaPoint said. "You read the papers and think you have a disaster coming -- that he's going to fight his teammates and not want to play and demand this and that. But he's been exactly the opposite. He's been a great guy to have here.''
Everett's Long Island experience has a touch of Florida high school reunion to it. In the early 1990s, Everett was a budding star at Hillsborough High, the same school that sent Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield to pro ball. Danny Graves was an undersized righty with a middling fastball for nearby Brandon High.
I know I have a lot of good years left in me, and I know a lot of clubs out there know the same thing. When I hang it up, I'm the one who has to be satisfied. Anytime I have to make a decision about me, I'm going to make it. No one else is.
Now they're teammates in pursuit of a similar goal. Graves, who suffered an oblique injury in spring training and was released by Colorado, is closing games for Long Island and creeping back into the upper 80s with his fastball. Everett, 10 pounds too heavy, wants to show he has enough life in his bat and body for one more crack in the big leagues.
Everett jokingly calls Graves "long-haired Danny'' in reference to his flowing mane as a teenager, and Graves remembers plunking Everett on the leg by accident with a pitch. He has always considered Everett a personal favorite.
"Carl is Carl,'' Graves said. "He has his opinion. And whether it's right or wrong, he's going to say it anyway.''
Their back-and-forth repartee is endless. The Long Island players were recently watching the NCAA baseball tournament on the clubhouse television, and Everett made a dismissive comment about college baseball.
"My high school could have beaten your college,'' Everett told Graves, who played for the University of Miami.
"What the heck are you talking about?'' Graves said. "My high school beat your high school.''
While chatty and gregarious with his teammates, Everett will be forever dismissive of the media for its portrayal of him. During a 20-minute interview, he ripped the Boston press for printing nothing but "lies" during his tenure with the Red Sox, and pointed out that a lot of players cultivate good press by being "phony.'' He's simply not built that way.
"I'm not going to be a mime or a puppet,'' Everett said. "That's politically correct stuff. I'm not a big believer in politics.''
In a certain sense, independent ball is almost liberating. Politics, past allegiances and contract concerns play no role in roster decisions here. Everybody is a castoff, looking to impress the 30 major league clubs and waiting for the phone to ring.
And the camaraderie is second to none. The Long Island players routinely sit around the clubhouse after games and shoot the bull as the team bus idles in the parking lot. They talk about their experiences in affiliated ball, their successes and failures, and in many cases, how they got the shaft. It's the ultimate in baseball bonding experiences.
"Everyone in this league has been screwed already,'' Everett said. "So we've all got something in common.''