Palmer leads list of spring hopefuls

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When most of us get an invitation, we're honored. Possibly delighted. Maybe even downright teary-eyed.

And that's just at the thought of lining up at an open bar.

But in baseball, the only "invitations" we've run across don't tend to be quite that inspirational. No tears are shed. No vows will be exchanged. No gifts are allowed.

That's because in baseball, the only place a player ever gets "invited" is to spring training. And a rough synonym for "invited," in this case, would go something like:

Just be glad you're not unemployed and shoveling snow.

As we've mentioned before this time of year, we always love that expression, "invited to spring training" -- as in: "Atlanta Braves sign IF-OF-C-RHP Mike Glofenstofferhof and invite him to spring training."

For Mike Glofenstofferhof, you understand, this probably means his only other offer was from WalMart. So this "invitation" was actually just his way of postponing real life for at least another month and a half.

But it's still a fascinating way to describe that phenomenon -- with a festive word like "invites." We bet you've wondered about this yourself. Is there a little RSVP card included that a guy has to send back in a prestamped blue envelope?

"I'll put it this way," says nonroster Twins quotesmith Andy Fox. "If you're a nonroster guy, your aspirations for winning the MVP are nil. So you go for the RSVP."

But in fact, this whole concept of "inviting" guys to spring training has always appeared to be a massive hoax. No one we know has ever found his invitation in the mail, enclosed in a fancy embossed envelope that probably cost more than his contract.

Fortunately, ESPN.com's favorite baseball problem-solver, Yankees invitee Doug Glanville, has gotten to the bottom of this enduring sporting mystery.

"People are missing the boat on this," Glanville reports. "It's the era of cyberspace. If they didn't get their invitation, they probably didn't submit their e-mail address. It turns out, you need a password. Then they send you a code. You go through six Web sites, pass through a couple of firewalls and you're there.

"It's a little complicated, so a lot of guys don't get it. ... But I used my engineering background and called some of my professors from Penn, and they gave me some tips on how to decrypt. So that's how it works. People just aren't thinking outside the box. They're waiting by the mailbox. But nobody sends mail anymore."

So there you have it. There is an invitation involved. You just need to consult a few of your favorite Ivy League faculty members to locate it.

Nevertheless, even if you ever do get that invitation, we wouldn't advise counting on any open bars.

"Well, we do get lunch," Glanville says. "We have a lot of spaghetti and meatballs here in camp. That's free. But an open bar? That might be a little dangerous."

Every year in spring training, we find hundreds of extra players roaming the free-spaghetti lines, looking -- to the untrained eye -- almost exactly like the Derek Jeters and Carlos Beltrans of the baseball universe. Or wearing the same uniforms, anyway.

But the trained eye can pick out many of those invitees in about 1.2 seconds -- if only because there's a good chance they're wearing a number higher than their salary.

"My first year I was an invited guy, in Cincinnati, I came to camp and I had No. 56," says by-invitation-only Marlins pinch-hit specialist Lenny Harris. "When I got my first at-bat, I was out in the on-deck circle, and I heard a guy say, 'Hey, Lenny Harris -- you're a good player, but you've got to get rid of that Bengals number.' "

So this spring, Harris feels a little better -- since he's wearing No. 10. Which at least means that, if he winds up with the Dolphins, they might let him play quarterback.

"If I ever came in and they gave me No. 97," Harris says, "I'd just turn back around and go home."

Nobody we know has ever done a scientific study on the uniform numbers of players invited to spring training. But we'll go with Lenny Harris' highly unscientific conclusion: The lower your number, the better chance you have of making the team.

"I didn't know what number I was going to get," says Glanville, who does know that the Yankees' supply of low numbers is kind of limited. "I just figured when I did put it on, I'd better make sure that Tiki Barber wasn't behind me."

But that wide receiver job can wait because Glanville was handed No. 26. So he knows there's hope he might still be wearing it in April.

There are no guarantees of that, though. Which is part of the gig when you're invited to spring training: No perks. No glory. No tee times. No promises.

And no complaints.

"This is a totally different spring training than any I've ever had," says Dean Palmer, once a Tigers star, now a Tigers invitee. "You don't start a game, then get the next day off. If you do start a game, the next day you go in late for defense. You make every road trip. And you don't ever get a day off. But you know what? It's kind of fun."

It wasn't so long ago that Palmer was an All-Star -- a Silver Slugger third baseman who averaged almost 30 homers a year from 1993 through 2000. Now, at age 36, the only All-Star team he qualifies for is ours -- the Invited to Spring Training All-Star team.

In fact, Dean Palmer just might be the ultimate Invited to Spring Training All-Star -- because this isn't merely a comeback he's mixed up in. It's practically a reincarnation.

Remember the last time Palmer got 500 at-bats in a season? Probably not, since it was five years ago. He hit 29 homers and drove in 102 runs for the Tigers that year. The next spring, his shoulder started throbbing. He needed rotator-cuff surgery by July. And in the 4½ seasons since, he has accumulated a total of 11 hits. Which is, essentially, about one weekend in the life of Ichiro.

Palmer headed for the disabled list to stay on May 10, 2003. Even he thought that was the last we'd ever seen of him.

Uh, apparently not. Last October, he felt that itch again while watching the playoffs. And he noticed his shoulder didn't hurt anymore. And then this saga took a really insane twist.

It isn't every Invited to Spring Training All-Star who is lucky enough to have his 5-year-old twin sons end up in the same class at school as the son of a real-live major league general manager. But that happened to Dean Palmer.

That GM was the Tigers' Dave Dombrowski. And because of that connection their kids have, "I see him all the time," Dombrowski says.

So one day last fall, Dombrowski wondered whether Palmer might be interested in a job as a coach or a scout. Palmer said he had a better idea.

"The way I went out of the game before, it wasn't the way I would have picked," Palmer says. "I thought it would be a situation where you just say you've had enough and walk away. But I hadn't had enough.

"This way, if I go through spring training and it turns out that's it, at least I was playing. I was on the field playing, and I just didn't have what it takes to play in the big leagues. And I could accept that."

Except that might not be how this turns out. Palmer knew when he arrived in camp that there probably was no roster vacancy for him to step into. But the Tigers never did treat him like a guy with no chance. They gave him a ballplayers' number (17). He even got his old locker back.

At last look, 24 at-bats into his Grapefruit League audition, he was hitting .292, with a homer and three RBI. And after eyeballing him this spring, his manager, Alan Trammell, says that when he looks at Dean Palmer, he sees "a major league player."

"He's proven to me he can still play," Trammell says. "Without a doubt. That's not a question anymore. If the question is where he'll fit in, I can't answer that. But he'll be here [in camp] the whole time. You just don't know what can happen."

That means a couple of weeks more of having to prove himself. But when you're an Invited to Spring Training All-Star, having to prove yourself all spring is an unwritten clause in the contract.

"I always tell people I like it like that," says Harris, who might have set an all-time record by going to camp as a lowly invitee for the sixth straight year. "My dad used to say, 'Nobody gives you anything in life. You have to earn it.' So that's what I want to do -- earn it. If anybody ever gives me something, I might relax. I don't want that."

So while the big boys go play golf at noon, the Invited to Spring Training All-Stars go out to take batting practice in a group full of guys wearing Nos. 78 and 86.

While the big boys jet into spring training first-class, "I get 20 bucks for mileage from Miami," Harris chuckles. Still, it sure beats real life.

"You can't come in and expect to be treated like a superstar," Palmer says. "You've gotta be humble."

But for some of the humbled ones, if the breaks fall right and the bloopers fall safely, they'll find themselves riding on that airplane when it heads north in two weeks. And they'll get to head for the ballpark, not a PTA meeting.

"Even my son's been amazed by this," Dombrowski says of the fellow PTA father now wearing his uniform. "We were at a game the other day, and Landon was saying, ... 'That's Casey and Bryce's dad. Is he really playing for the Tigers, dad?' "

Well, yeah he is -- for now, anyway. And who knows? If this works out, you might find GMs sending their scouts to a bunch of parent-teacher conferences next winter, looking for next spring's greatest Invited to Spring Training All-Star.

"Hey, we're open to any way we can find players," Dave Dombrowski says. "You never can tell."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.