The gates begin to open today on what might be the strangest spring training in baseball history, with many retired and released players getting a new life as replacements for the striking major leaguers.
Yes, that’s Oil Can Boyd in the camp of the Chicago White Sox. Yes, that’s Leon Durham and Pedro Guerrero wearing Angel uniforms. Yes, that’s 39-year-old Ken Oberkfell lumbering out to third base for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Is this an embarrassment, as some claim, or do the Florida Marlins have it right when they describe it simply as a “non-traditional roster?” What is there to say about the annual awakening and promise of a spring training conducted amid the numbing and ongoing labor crises of 1995?
John Schuerholz, general manager of the Atlanta Braves, put it this way:
“I’ve always considered spring training the best part of the season. It’s a time when the earth and the game renews itself. The cold winter is past. The (contract) negotiations are behind us. The players are back in uniform, and all of it serves to epitomize baseball for what it is . . . the simple playing of the game, the majesty of the game.
“Obviously, those emotions have been compromised by the current situation. The major leaguers and players on the 40-man roster won’t be in camp, and there’s a general pall over the industry because of the labor situation.
” . . . It won’t stop me from living up to my responsibility to help provide baseball to the fans or to try and create as normal an environment as I can. All of the surveys indicate the fans are completely behind the replacement concept. They want to see baseball. They don’t buy into what the players union says about it.”
What the union is basically saying was summed up by Joe Girardi, Colorado Rockies catcher and player representative:
“After two or three days of watching UPS drivers trying to play baseball, then what are they going to do? The product is bound to be horrible. It’s a slap in the face to the fans to say: ‘You will pay for any brand of baseball we put out there.’
“That’s telling the fans: ‘You don’t know the game.’ I mean, you’re talking about players who were released or who are retired or who were never anything, for the most part. Yet, in the next two weeks, the teams will try to put pressure on the big leaguers by showing shots of 100 players in spring training, but only a few of them are replacements. The rest are low-level minor leaguers, but the teams will act as if they have tons of people lining up to take our jobs.”
UPS drivers? Perhaps. Most scouts say the quality will be comparable to a senior league, double-A at best.
Jeff Stone, 34, is leaving his job in a steel mill for a replacement bid with the Phillies, who are also providing opportunities to former major leaguers Oberkfell and Todd Cruz, also 39, and Marty Bystrom, 36. The San Diego Padres are recycling 41-year-old pitcher Dan Boone, who has been struggling in construction and couldn’t resist a chance at the windfall pay.
Most replacement players will receive a $5,000 signing bonus, a $5,000 opening-day bonus, a $115,000 pro-rated salary and $20,000 termination pay.
Dodger Vice President Fred Claire said his team was particularly cautious about who they signed.
“All of our players have professional experience,” Claire said. “We have no one in our organization I’d be embarrassed about playing. I can’t say what we’ll see from different organizations, because I have no awareness of who they’re going to play.
. . . “In some cases it will be almost like the fun of a minor league environment, and I don’t mean that negatively. The important thing is that we keep the game in front of the public and make the best of the situation.”
That’s the hard reality. The hope and hype of spring and the 28 camps begin to open today with rosters comprised of minor league free agents, released and retired players, and minor leaguers from within the respective systems.
The union has asked all players on 40-man rosters--generally comprised of the top minor leaguers in addition to the major league regulars--not to report, and all minor leaguers not to play in exhibition games starting in early March. That is a request likely to be honored by any young player with a chance to eventually reach the majors and unwilling to face the wrath at that time of players who were on strike.
Only the Baltimore Orioles do not plan to field a replacement team, a position that will soon create a legal confrontation between owner Peter Angelos and the American League. But the Orioles will play “B” games with minor leaguers if no admission is charged and the opposition doesn’t use replacement players.
The spring camps open despite only 234 of the 1,100 players on 40-man rosters being signed for 1995. However, there is evidence--as illustrated by comments by the Phillies’ Lenny Dykstra last week--that union leader Donald Fehr might have an increasingly difficult time keeping a lid on union solidarity as the season approaches and players contemplate lost income.
Fehr and his staff will meet with players, including Dykstra, in Orlando, Fla., today. They will hold another players meeting in Phoenix on Saturday.
The union remains convinced that the owners’ goal is to divide the players and break the union.
On the other side, Rockies owner Jerry McMorris, at one point the owner closest to the union, has assumed a more hard-line posture recently and said the union has refused to negotiate, preferring to litigate.
“I don’t want to play temporary players,” McMorris said. “Nobody wants to play baseball with the regular players more than Jerry McMorris and the Rockies. But our responsibilities go beyond the ballplayers and ownership.
“We have about 2,000 people who work around the stadium who have been without income since the players went on strike in August. We have all kinds of new businesses around Coors Field (which opens in April), and we have the debt service as it relates to paying for Coors Field.
“I can’t let every little person get hurt in this process. We will play ball with the players who want to play, and I will do everything I can between now and then to resolve our problems with the union.”
Dodger President Peter O’Malley said: Nobody wants to open spring training or the season with replacement players, but we have to play in 1995, that’s critical.”
Management has lost more than $500 million in revenue since the strike began. The players have lost more than $200 million in salary. The spring training states of Arizona and Florida are expected to take a significant economic hit.
Will there be empty stools at Scottsdale’s Pink Pony, the famous spring training saloon?
“This is unknown territory, unchartered water,” said Dusty Baker, the San Francisco Giants’ manager.
This much is clear: If the season opens with replacements and the regulars later return, the replacement record counts in the standings.
A total of 896 players are needed if all 28 teams field a 32-man replacement roster. There has been stiff competition to sign potential candidates and no assurance there will be enough. The tryout camps that temporarily emptied beer leagues and slo-pitch softball leagues produced few signings. The independent leagues have prospered. The Northern League has sold about 50 players at $3,000 each.
The Dodgers are taking 15 non-roster players to Vero Beach, Fla., and Claire said he isn’t sure he can fill the 32-man replacement roster.
“We’re starting the spring without our 40-man roster and with no assurance those players will be back for the start of the season,” he said. “This is going to be difficult and different, but simply getting back to baseball is a lift that beats sitting in an office and worrying about it. Playing is better than not playing.”
With this cast, time will tell.