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Baseball Kelly: Blue Jays veteran Brad Penny sticks around for the love of the game

On the first real day of work at spring training, the guys who know they have jobs were easing into things.

Jose Bautista spent most of his time stretching heroically on the sidelines and chirping the nearby media.

"If you say blue, they say green," Bautista yelled at no one in particular. "If you don't say anything, it's like you said something."

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"He's mad that we're not taking his picture," a photographer said, dubiously.

Josh Donaldson nodded along sympathetically with his exercised teammate. When it was his turn to step in against live pitching for the first time, he hesitated. You could see him trying to mentally place the man approaching the mound, Triple-A journeyman Ben Rowen.

"You throw from underneath?" Donaldson wondered.

Rowen, a submarine pitcher, didn't answer. He leaned down and gestured that he releases the ball about six inches from the ground.

"Alright, I'm out," Donaldson said, and resumed doing nothing.

After a morning spent pledging allegiance to the flag – "I want to stay on this team. I love this team. I love this city." – Edwin Encarnacion had returned to a benign muteness. He probably won't speak again until he's either signed or a free agent.

That's what big-league camp looks like in February for people without professional worries. Then there's the camp within the camp – the dozens more trying to find one or two empty seats when the music stops.

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They can be divided into three rough groups – the ones too young to have any idea what's going on; those just old enough to know that time is beginning to slip them by and the few who realize it probably already has.

Perhaps the most notable of them is 37-year-old Brad Penny. If you consider the body of work, he may be the most successful pitcher here. He's started more than 300 major-league games. He's been an all-star twice. Ten years ago, he led the National League in wins.

For the better part of the past five years, Penny has been a man reduced to looking for a steady job. He's made only four big-league starts since 2011. He played last season in the International League.

Though he's made $50-million (U.S.) in his career, Penny chooses a frugality fitting his current circumstances. He brought only one car to Florida. He leaves it at home for his wife to use. He cycles to Dunedin from Innisbrook – a 30-kilometre round trip.

"It's good cardio," he shrugs, and then expands into philosophy. "I don't care how much money you have, you don't want to sit at home."

Amongst the fauna of the clubhouse, Penny is a unique beast – someone afforded the respect due a veteran, but not one of the gang. Minor leaguers keep a wary distance, fearing overfamiliarity. Big leaguers instinctively avoid someone who's not quite at their level any more.

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He'll spend part of most mornings huddled quietly at his locker with roving instructor Tim Raines. They were teammates fourteen years ago.

A lot of times, neither man is talking. They seem satisfied to share one another's close company without the hindrance of conversation.

"He was one of my favourite teammates. Always smiling. You never see him mad. He's fun."

It's an old-timer thing to say. Penny's still in the tribe, but just barely.

During the job hunt, he went to Japan. That ended poorly. He took 2013 off, and his command deserted him. Though an enormous man, he's not a power pitcher. He uses a varied portfolio to find contact. That's why he still has any shot.

Measured against a towering competitive challenge, the allure is a lifestyle he sees slipping away.

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"Since high school, my whole life's been built around a five-day schedule – pitch; day off, do legs, run stadiums; bullpen, upper-body, run stadiums; agility, sprint; and then pitch again. It gets so you have no idea what day of the week it is."

That may sound excessively regimented to you. If so, you wouldn't have made it as a ballplayer. Penny said it wistfully.

Do you ever want the freedom of setting your own schedule?

"Freedom?" Penny said, like the idea had just occurred to him. "It kinda drives you crazy."

He has post-career plans. He has the detailed mind and relaxed ease you find in the best coaches. But he's in no rush.

As it stands, things don't look terribly bright. He once tried the bullpen. It didn't go well. There may be room for one aging outsider in the rotation. If so, it's almost certainly 33-year-old Gavin Floyd, who's lost most of the past two seasons to injury.

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The most likely best-case scenario is that Penny starts the season in Triple-A Buffalo and waits for someone to fail or get hurt.

"I only want what I deserve," he said. "I won't take a spot from someone who's better than me."

It's the sort of thing a lot of people in his situation would say and not mean. He means it.

And if you don't make it?

"Then I don't make it. I've done things people would have died to have done. I'll miss it when it's over. But it's gotta end."

As Penny spoke, the guys with jobs were getting off the bus and filtering noisily back into the room.

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Donaldson came in blasting music through a speaker in his equipment bag. Bautista was still chirping.

A few minutes before, most of the kiddie pitchers had been sitting half-asleep at their cubbies, scrolling through their phones. Most now jumped up to make space for their betters, trying to look busy.

Penny watched them all for a moment from a corner, a little smile playing at the corner of his mouth. He doesn't need to look busy any more. But he'd still like to.

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