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The Daydream Believers : Baseball Strike Leads to Seventh-Inning Stretch of Imagination

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Was that the foreboding future of major league baseball that surfaced on an appropriately dark and damp weekend or merely a sequel to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”?

Was that strange array of shapes and sizes what the replacement game will really look like, if the major leaguers stay on strike? Or were those hundreds of hopefuls who attended weekend tryout camps conducted by the Angels and Toronto Blue Jays merely trying to become replacements for the replacements?

Is this what it has come to: A Toronto scout holding a baby as the toddler’s father chases his rainbow during a pitching trial Sunday at Pierce College?

“It’s just a dream,” said Greg Fisher, a 19-year-old bespectacled mail clerk from Burbank wearing a softball uniform and willing to try out at any position as he waited for Saturday’s Toronto camp to begin on the water-logged diamond at Long Beach Community College.

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“If the big leaguers are going to stay out, you can’t pass up this opportunity,” said Lance Cpl. Austin Richardson, a Tustin Marine and center field candidate who wore shorts and sweatshirt in the mist at Cal State Fullerton Friday night as his 21st birthday drew a mind-boggling party of 987 amateur hopefuls to the first of the Angels’ three weekend camps.

Said Riverside truck driver Randy Simpson of the striking major leaguers, “To me, you should be honored just to play ball, let alone get paid.” Simpson, 30, made his pitching bid Friday night in a T-shirt touting a sports bar’s fast pitch softball tournament in Victorville.

At all ages, they came in uniform and out, from Tijuana to Texas, willing to start at any level. They came with parents, girlfriends and babies. Some carried heavy equipment bags, others only a glove. Some had professional or legitimate college experience, most had been playing in beer leagues. This would be their happy hour of another kind.

“I don’t think I have a shot, but I just want to say I tried,” said Edward Kipp, 24, of San Diego. “The way the Chargers are winning, anything is possible.”

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Kipp works at a newsstand, plays in an amateur league and decided to try out at third base on his drive to Fullerton Friday.

“I’d say I’m a utility player but they made me pick a position,” Kipp said after registering. “Someone asked me about my arm. It’s attached. That’s about as far as I can go.”

Kipp returned to San Diego satisfied to have had the opportunity, but the dream became a reality for a few.

The Blue Jays, who might be prevented from fielding a replacement team because of Ontario and Canadian labor laws, looked at about 400 players in their two weekend camps and signed three pitchers to minor league contracts.

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The Angels looked at more than 1,200 players and signed nine--six amateurs and three with professional experience, among them catcher Philip Ouellette, 33, who played in the San Francisco, Houston, Seattle and Detroit organizations and has been a department manager at a Home Depot since 1991, when he was released by the Tigers.

“I want to play ball, but it has nothing to do with the money,” Ouellette, the father of two, said. “There’s just no better job or way of life. Everybody has that dream. I don’t think it ever dies.”

Ouellette and most others said they have nothing to lose and would have no trouble crossing a picket line if it came to that.

“Hell,” said John O’Brien, a 21-year-old truck driver-pitcher from the Mojave Desert area, “all those high-paid guys who have been on strike for six months have already tarnished (baseball’s image). I mean, what more damage could any of us do?”

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Under the replacement rules, all minor leaguers will be asked if they would cross the line, but most clubs will not put their younger players and top prospects in a position in which they might be ostracized by the returning regulars when the strike ends.

Most replacement teams, if it comes to that, are expected to employ released or retired major and minor leaguers, and most of those signings are being done at the executive level.

Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi said three or four of the players signed at the weekend tryout camps might have the ability to play on a replacement team, but most will be used to fill holes in the minors.

“If the worst happens (and the season opens with replacement teams), we know that some minor leaguers will cross the line and we need to supplement that,” Bavasi said. “We have a commitment to five minor league teams. We may need bodies.

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“We usually have one tryout camp just before spring training every year. We took it to a broader scale because of the (labor situation) but if anyone is thinking we expected to fill a replacement team out of these camps, that’s bogus. We felt that if we signed two or three players to supplement the minors, it would be a bonus. Of course, you never know where you’re going to find a Bryan Harvey.”

Bavasi referred to the former Angel relief pitcher who was scouted and signed off a semipro team in North Carolina. No one was claiming that another Harvey emerged from the weekend. Most of the non-pitchers and catchers at the Angel camps were eliminated when they failed to run 60 yards in seven seconds or less. Scout Rick Ingalls referred to the 987-player traffic jam of Friday night and said: “With 900 guys, if we’d given ‘em a bat, somebody might have been killed.”

Outfielder-catcher Keven Dell’Amico, the leading hitter on Pepperdine’s NCAA championship team of 1992 and undrafted as a 1994 senior, leaned on a bat he had brought with him Friday night and said he is weighing an offer to play in Italy but is also hopeful he might attract a minor league offer.

“I don’t expect to jump to the majors as a replacement player,” he said, echoing the view of several players in his category. “I’d much prefer a minor league contract so that I’d have the opportunity to develop for a couple of years and possibly reach the big leagues legitimately.”

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Officials of the players’ union privately believe that replacement games will never take place. They say the 28 teams will never find 896 players capable of playing even on a sandlot variety replacement team and that the owners will return to serious collective bargaining in late February or early March after getting a spring feel for the poor quality of the replacement players.

“I have a feeling that this is just a way to get the two sides back to the table,” said former Minnesota pitcher Jay Pettibone at the Angel tryout Saturday night.

Pettibone, a former Chapman College pitcher, was 0-4 with the Twins in 1983. He is 37, the father of boys 2 and 4, and a U.S. Treasury agent who lives in Yorba Linda and works in Riverside. Colleagues had been encouraging Pettibone to give it a try again, and his arm had felt good, he said, while throwing occasionally in weekend leagues.

“It’s a part of my life that my family knows about but wasn’t really a part of,” Pettibone said of professional baseball. “I thought it would be fun if my boys could see me pitch.”

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Pettibone wasn’t offered a contract, but the feeling seemed to be there aren’t any losers in the tryout scenario, that replacement teams or not, it’s a public relations concept worth repeating and expanding in future years.

“I met a lot of incredibly gracious people who said they just wanted a chance and thanked us for the opportunity,” Toronto scout John Cole said.

Tim Wilken, a special-assignment scout in charge of the Blue Jays’ two weekend camps, pointed out that there are always players who slip through the scouting net. He said there are 43 U.S. citizens on major league rosters who weren’t drafted.

“I don’t think anyone can predict what the replacement teams will be like, if it goes that far,” Wilken said.

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“I’m certain that the level won’t be what we’re familiar with, but I’m an underdog kind of guy and kind of like this process. There’s a little of Walter Mitty in all of us.”

Some of the snapshots would have been worthy of “America’s Funniest Videos,” but Angel scout Ingalls said, “I don’t look down on any of these people. It takes a lot of courage to go under the microscope. We’ve all had the dream. That’s what keeps the game going.

“I mean, we had almost a thousand people out here Friday night. That’s stunning. I was blown away when I heard we were expecting 400 to 600. It just shows how popular the game is, no matter what anybody does to it.”


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