- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The teams sport such names as the San Antonio Alamos, Abilene Prairie Dogs and Edinburg Roadrunners.

The players - from college dropouts to minor-league flameouts and everything in between - pay up to $3,000 to play for one more shot at glory. But that’s not what figures to make the Texas Winter League that opens Tuesday at Wolff Stadium must-see entertainment.

The independent baseball league’s main attraction is Jose Canseco, a former major league MVP, six-time All-Star, World Series champion and admitted steroids user. The ex-Oakland A’s slugger plans to be an everyday player.

“I love the game,” he told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/Lvmp4S). “And as long as I can play the game, I’m going to try.”

Canseco’s official duties are director of baseball operations and special hitting instructor. But Canseco has told league officials that he plans to play in all the 1 p.m. games at Wolff Stadium. The rest of the games will be played at the Missions Baseball Academy off Texas 151.

Founded in 2005, the league spent eight seasons in Yuma, Ariz., as the Arizona Winter League. This winter, founder and president Jose Melendez, a Laredo native, returned the league to its Texas roots. Its first season was played in Harlingen.

Each of the six teams in the league will play a 24-game, round-robin schedule culminating in the playoffs Feb. 25 to 27. The teams aren’t based in their respective cities. Melendez said he just borrowed the names and uniforms from clubs in the Texas-based United League and North American League.

On Saturday, more than 100 players from as far away as Japan, South Korea and Venezuela reported for workouts. On Sunday, a draft was conducted by managers and coaches of the six teams to stock rosters.

“I really like the concept,” said Burl Yarbrough, president of the San Antonio Missions that have partnered with the Texas Winter League for the season. “It’s a chance for guys to get a job in baseball.”

Managers and instructors include former major league players Mike Marshall, Les Lancaster and Ozzie Canseco, Jose’s identical twin brother. Players using the league as a springboard to professional baseball is a point of pride for Melendez, who estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of the league’s players sign pro contracts each year.

“My biggest joy is when one of these players gets signed,” Melendez said. “It’s what keeps me going.”

A former director of marketing for the Missions, Melendez, 33, attended the University of Texas at San Antonio and received a graduate degree in business at the University of the Incarnate Word. His full-time occupation is sports agent. He represents Jose Canseco and former big-league players Manny Ramirez, Raul Mondesi, Pedro Guerrero and Cecil Fielder. Other clients include former world champion boxer Riddick Bowe and pro wrestler Robbie E.

Independent league baseball is “my hobby,” said Melendez, who also operates a summer league in Fort Worth.

The players do not get paid for playing in the league. Tuition is $1,000 to $3,000 per player, but Melendez said the league pays for the players’ hotel and living expenses.

Given his business background, Melendez understands that the best way to pitch his independent league to the public is to market its best players. But when your best player - and only star - is Canseco, doing so can quickly become a sideshow. And a huge distraction.

“I know people are going to ask for his autograph,” Melendez said. “But Jose’s not going to be there for publicity. He’s going to be there to work.”

Canseco says he doesn’t mind the attention as long as it helps the league.

“I believe in winter ball,” he said. “There’s so many players who didn’t get a chance before and are looking for pro contracts. There’s a lot of talent out here.”

He said his presence might actually help “keep the players on their toes.”

Canseco last played in the majors in 2001 and then delivered a bombshell in 2005 with a tell-all book detailing the widespread use of steroids.

In the book, “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big,” he named ex-teammates - including former Texas Rangers Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez - as players who used performance-enhancing drugs.

Canseco said he has “no idea” where he stands with Major League Baseball.

“I’ve been out of the game since I was 37 - and I’m 50 now,” he said. “I don’t even think about it. I just concentrate on what we’re doing here and developing these kids. It doesn’t matter what level I’m in. Baseball is baseball.”

The story’s a little different for Nick Thornton, 26, a pitcher from Groveton who played college baseball in Texas and still has dreams of one day playing pro ball.

“I’m not ready to give it up yet,” Thornton said. “I’m still touching the low 90s with my fastball. If I can throw my off- speed stuff for strikes here, I have a chance.”

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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