Kuld and Colder Replacements

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a mutt of indistinguishable breed and mysterious origin. The battered fleabag wandered in from the swampland last month, ribs protruding and hair a matted mess.

A chunk of hide was missing from its hindquarters, where an alligator evidently availed itself of a free meal. You know, some folks say dog tastes like chicken.

Groundskeepers at the Chain O'Lakes Stadium complex cleaned up the frazzled pooch, named her Fungo, and set her free to roam the sprawling site, which serves as the spring-training home of the Cleveland Indians.

Hardly anyone noticed. All eyes were on the motley crew on the field as camp opened with an anonymous cast of vagrants bent on playing major-league baseball--and willing to take shortcuts to get there.

With the big-league strike meandering past its 200th day, Cleveland's spring roster is littered with players of dubious credentials, each an aspiring replacement candidate. You know, some folks say these chickens look like dogs.

In terms of making the show, most are guys who couldn't. Probably guys who shouldn't.

A few years back, the motion picture "Major League" poked fun at the woeful, downtrodden Indians and featured a past-his-prime catcher taking one last hack at glory.

No doubt about it, the spring scene in 1995 is a wild thing and Chatsworth High graduate Pete Kuld is right in the middle of the whacked-out story line. But there's no script.

Four days into spring training, a lightning bolt hit Kuld--a 28-year-old catcher with a career average of .228 in eight minor-league seasons--upside the head.

"You know, nobody's noticed, but we basically are the cast of 'Major League,' " Kuld said.

This ain't fiction, though at times it qualifies as comedy.

*

Players couldn't believe their ears. A handful of retired folks peered through the chain-link fence and tried to make out a recognizable name on the Cleveland uniforms.

Good luck. Two fans half-seriously ran through the old Abbott and Costello routine.

Who's on first.

What's on second.

I Dunno's on third.

Exactly. Nobody knows.

"There aren't many gas station attendants, mechanics or custodians here," Kuld said. "These guys are mainly people who played somewhere last year."

Mainly being the key word. Heck, the biographies of Cleveland's non-roster catching corps alone have more twists and turns than a tale from the Brothers Grimm.

Alongside his brethren, Kuld looked like a world-beater, the consummate pro.

Greg Toler hasn't played professionally since 1987 and works for an office supply company in Florida. He once played football in junior high for John Hart, now Cleveland's general manager. Even in Scab Ball, it's who you know that matters.

Toler, 30, sparkled in comparison to fellow wanna-be catcher Joe Demus, who didn't survive the first day of camp before the ax fell on his thick neck. The writing on the wall read: You are an average Joe, if that.

Demus, a former Boston Red Sox farmhand with a lifetime minor-league average of .193, was listed at 6-feet-2, 189 pounds. His left thigh probably weighed that much alone, perhaps a result of his most recent profession: Delivery man for an Italian restaurant in West Virginia.

Demus, who hadn't played since 1992, has a slow drawl and slower feet.

By the end of the first day, the guy Indian coaches derisively nicknamed Joe D. was gone. As Demus, 28, waddled out of the locker room for the first and last time, having barely survived afternoon conditioning drills without suffering a coronary, he wished a teammate good luck.

"I can't handle this," Demus said. "But I got a call from the Phillies, so I'm heading there. Maybe their camp will be easier."

What a scene. Even catchers from within the organization were a bumbling lot. Mitch Meluskey hit .241 last summer for Cleveland's Class A affiliate in Kinston, N.C. Meluskey made the mistake of missing an appointment with a team trainer and paid the price.

Coaches made Meluskey ride a bicycle over a series of sandy levees. After a couple of hours, coaches suspected Meluskey wasn't working hard enough.

They removed the bicycle seat.

Compared to the scene at some camps, the Cleveland crew was stellar. The Indians didn't conduct open tryouts, where everybody this side of Sam Malone tended to request an audition. Instead, Hart said his staff made approximately 800 phone calls to locate replacement candidates. Maybe he should have called a 900 number instead.

A few weeks back, Hart and Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette participated in a celebrity snow-skiing event in New England.

While the pair tossed back a cold one in the lodge bar, they spotted former big-league pitcher Mark Fidrych. A light bulb appeared over their noggins. Duquette was faster on the draw.

"Fidrych! That's my guy," Duquette said, bolting from his bar stool.

He unsuccessfully petitioned Fidrych to sign as a replacement player. Fidrych hasn't played in the majors since 1980.

*

A large tent sits on the public grounds that include the Chain O'Lakes facility. Inside, a church revival meeting is generating a ruckus on a humid Sunday morning. Fire-and-brimstone can be heard from camp.

The sign outside the tent reads "Jesus Saves," but career resurrection is all that's on Kuld's mind. Twenty-seven homers and the big-league players strike saved Pete Kuld. Praise the Lord and pass the pine tar.

"When you get released, they take your life away from you," Kuld said. "That's when people lean toward religion and stuff like that. Once you get released, you change."

Kuld's metamorphosis over the past 1 1/2 seasons was shocking to those in the Cleveland organization. In his first seven years of pro ball, Kuld never hit higher than .228 or more than 10 homers. Based primarily on his defense and ability to handle pitchers, he reached the double-A level with Cleveland, Oakland and Texas.

In the spring of 1993, Kuld was summoned into the office of Bobby Valentine, the Texas manager at the time, and given his release.

Kuld had no job, a wife in Honolulu who made $500 a week as a church secretary and a $1,200 rent payment to meet. Bills piled up. The phone didn't ring for eons.

"I've wanted to play major league baseball since I was 4," Kuld said. "When they take that, they strip you of everything.

"You have nothing to go back to. You're lost."

In July of '93, the independent Northern League threw Kuld a rescue rope. The Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks, located a world away in Ontario, Canada, needed a catcher. Kuld reported a day later--even though he had to pay the fare from Hawaii to Los Angeles. He covered the tab with an unemployment check.

"He's long overdue for a break," said Ricky May, who owns the Whiskey Jacks and sold Kuld's rights for $3,000. "That guy absolutely loves to play the game."

Kuld said the decision was easy, even though the Northern League is composed primarily of retread players who were released by affiliated organizations.

"The only way to make it to the big leagues is in a uniform," Kuld said, shrugging. "You can't do it from your couch."

Not before this year, anyway.

Late start or not, Kuld responded with six home runs in 134 at-bats. Last summer, he hit .279 with an unfathomable 27 homers to break the minor-league short-season record.

Over his first seven pro seasons, he averaged eight homers, but this wasn't the same Kuld. By design, he was more patient at the plate. He switched to a heavier bat, stained in teal, the team color.

The peal of teal was deafening. When major league owners announced their intention to begin the 1995 season with replacement players, Kuld was among the first to be called into service. He signed a minor-league contract and volunteered to cross the picket line if needed.

Scab. Replacement. Fill-in. Strikebreaker. Sub. Temp. Major Leaguer?

"I think this is my big break," he said. "Personally, I don't think there's any difference between me and them. I think I can play at that level."

The financial lure is intoxicating. Kuld is guaranteed $30,000 if he makes the 32-man opening-day replacement roster, plus $628 in daily salary and a substantial food allowance. Kuld made $1,600 a month with the Whiskey Jacks last summer--and was the highest-paid player on the team.

"Thirty grand--not bad for two months' work," Kuld said.

There are no pangs of conscience. Catch as catch can, he says.

"The worst thing that could happen is that we play for a while and I make enough money to pay off my bills," he said. "Then I can start fresh, start a family and begin a real life."

Real life or make-believe, the line has become obscured. In baseball's wacky history, a wilder and more uncertain spring is virtually inconceivable. The only constant of 1995 is flux.

"Last year, I proved I could do it with the bat," Kuld said. "Now I'd like to prove I can do it in baseball that counts."

It'll count. And include an asterisk, probably.

Somebody asked Dan O'Dowd, Cleveland's assistant general manager, if Kuld could hit major-league pitching. O'Dowd laughed and said, "I don't know, but he can hit Northern League pitching, and he'll probably see a lot of that."

Kuld is sure he can do just about anything. During the first few days of spring training, he appeared remarkably relaxed and self-assured. His teammates were noticeably more fidgety.

Among the 15 catchers who opened camp, Kuld made the biggest impression. Balls jumped from his jet-black bat. His defensive tools, always a strength, were polished.

"He goes to show just how inexact the science of developing players can be," said Hart, the general manager.

Truth be told, Cleveland gave Kuld plenty of chances to develop. Nobody knows better than Mike Hargrove, who in 1987 was Kuld's first manager in Class A ball.

Kuld arrived full of vinegar as a rookie, figuring he had the game wired because he played top-shelf college ball in California. He admitted he was "young and cocky." Hargrove, now managing the big-league team, said Kuld was "hard-headed."

"Peter's always been real confident," Hargrove said. "It was never one of his weaknesses. But now it's a mature confidence. . . .

"It's amazing how easy the game can become when you realize you don't have all the answers."

There's still plenty of swagger in the guy. Kuld, one of the more articulate players in camp, was besieged by Cleveland-area television reporters and sports writers and didn't bat an eyelash. He spoke at length of rekindling a childhood dream and wasn't the least bit apologetic about possibly serving as a replacement.

When Kuld checked into camp, he was told that the organization didn't have any duffel bags left to issue. On the first day of workouts, Kuld hauled around his catching gear in an old Texas Rangers tote. People noticed. He figured they would.

"I forced the issue and I got a new one," he said.

Baseball is Kuld's only bag, actually. Many of the replacement hopefuls have off-season occupations. Pretty much all Kuld did over the winter was sell Christmas trees.

The venture didn't turn out to be his lot in life. Kuld said that after deducting expenses, he made about $1,000 for 300 hours of sweat and toil. Christmas in Honolulu? Maybe he should have known.

The reality of it all is that Kuld is ill-prepared for anything else. After graduating from Chatsworth High in 1984 and spending two superlative seasons at College of the Canyons, he received a scholarship from Pepperdine. Following his junior year, he was selected by Cleveland in the 12th round of the 1987 draft.

Good thing. Kuld would have been academically ineligible the following season. To his regret, he never gave school a chance.

If he was released tomorrow, Kuld said, he would probably seek employment with a buddy in Honolulu who runs a temporary staffing agency.

"Temp in the business world, a temp in the baseball world," Kuld said. "But you get more money over here."

Money, sure. What about fame and adulation? When the replacement season opens, the stands might be close to empty.

"I think baseball's the tradition, the magnet, not so much the people on the field," he said. "What happens when rookies come up? Fans don't know who those guys are. Same thing here, pretty much.

"If a dad wants to take his 6-year-old to a game, do you think he won't just because Mike Piazza's not playing?"

Folks who showed up to watch Cleveland's pitchers and catchers during the early stages of camp weren't sure what to expect. Some felt like rubber-neckers at an accident site.

Most of the people who dropped by were retirees. Full-time Floridians call them "snowbirds," because each winter, they migrate from the frozen north.

"If anybody buys (the notion of) replacement ball, they should call us pigeons," said Jack Donnelly, 60, of Cleveland. "I don't know any of these guys."

*

If Kuld has a solid spring, Cleveland might assign him to triple-A ball, where he won't have to cross union picket lines. He would then stand a chance of being promoted to the majors based on merit after the strike ends. If not, the prospect of ersatz ball isn't unpalatable.

Either way, the view from where Kuld sits suits him. He is wide awake in dreamland, though at the moment, he is squinting something fierce.

Kuld rummages through his duffel bag as he kneels near home plate at Chain O'Lakes Stadium, the park where the Indians begin their home exhibition schedule Friday. He is attempting to explain why he wears several colorful pairs of sunglasses during the course of an afternoon.

He has a variety of lens tints, including yellow and orange, that improve his vision depending upon the available sunlight. Sometimes, Kuld changes shades between innings. He even wears them under his catcher's mask.

"You know, I think if they ever made 'em shaded in red, it would be perfect for baseball," Kuld said.

Rose-colored lenses would definitely make spring training '95 looks better. Blinders might be even better.

Then there are those wearing love goggles. While many thumbed their noses, some gave the subs and scrubs a thumbs-up.

"These guys for all intents and purposes are the Cleveland Indians," said Jeff Stevens of Cleveland, a season ticket holder who brought his wife and son to Winter Haven to watch the proceedings.

"These guys want to play ball, they want to be here. They're the players now and we'll support them."

Stevens was more enthusiastic than most, including the Indians' coaching staff, brass and several players.

"Sure, there are some guys who shouldn't be out there," Kuld said. "But we have some guys who can play."

Yep, they have some guys. Who can play or play dead. Fungo, the adopted mutt, didn't hang around to see who made the grade.

The dog disappeared after a couple of days. The same fate undoubtedly awaits many of Kuld's less-talented mates.

"At least it's been a chance for a lot of guys to keep the dream alive," Hart said.

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