COMMENTARY : It's a Field of Dreams That Has Gone Wrong


You're a minor league baseball player and you don't know what to do. The big club says you must play spring training games or it'll release you. The players' union says if you play, you're a strikebreaker hurting your own future. You're in the middle of someone else's war and both sides are shooting at you. So what do you do? Play or go home?

For three years you've been rattling around in old buses to ramshackle parks with bad lights in nowhere towns. Last season in Double A, you made a thousand dollars a month, which you figure is $3 an hour. Now it's the spring of 1995 and you're in Florida and you don't know what to do.

You're a right fielder who hit .279. You have some power and they think you'll get stronger. You can run some. Your arm and your instincts are good. Somebody with the big club says, "Kid, you got a shot." You don't know the man's name. You do know those were words you wanted to hear.

Kid, you got a shot. Those words keep you going on aching midnight bus rides. The first time you saw Andy Van Slyke climb a wall to bring one back, you wanted to be in his dugout. You've seen Ozzie Smith. What more could a kid want than to walk on the same dirt as Ozzie?

You're a kid the big club signed for five thousand. The thing is, and they know it, you'd have paid them. You love just putting on the uniform. You shape the bill of your cap the way Mickey Mantle did his. "Maybe you can't play," a scout says, "but you can look like a ballplayer." Because Ken Griffey Jr. does it, you leave a button undone at the top of your shirt.

You dream of being there. You think of the best fastball you ever saw and you wonder how much sooner does Roger Clemens get it there? "I'd take him downtown," you say to a buddy, and your buddy says, "Me, too," because to say less is to admit being afraid your dreams will never be made real.

All you've ever wanted is to be a major leaguer and now you don't know what to do. You're in Florida early because the big club says so. There's a strike going on. There was no World Series last fall; there are no big leaguers in camp now. You're a kid and you don't have a clue what the strike's about, who's right, who's wrong. You just want to play ball.

Newspaper headlines leave you confused: "Yankees Order Minor Leaguers to Play in Exhibitions" . . . "Schuerholz Rips Union's 'Big Brother' Tactics" . . . "Eight Braves in Camp Heed Fehr's Threat." So you listen to people telling you what to think.

Someone from the players' union tells you if you play in spring games for which tickets are sold, you're a strikebreaker. You're taking a job you haven't earned. You're taking it from a man who refused to work because he believes the big club has been unfair. Your buddy says, "If we play, the big leaguers will hate our guts forever."

So you decide you won't play. On ESPN you hear Keith Olbermann refer to "replacement players" as "self-deluding weasels taking advantage of another man's suffering." You know the only way to make real money in baseball is to make it in the big leagues. You hear the union man say the union made that possible. You'll do the right thing. You'll be nobody's weasel.

But the next day, someone from the big club says you must play. He says the union cares about the Van Slykes and Smiths and Griffeys, not about you. He says the union does nothing for minor leaguers, won't even take you as members, but the big club has a million-dollar investment in making you a big leaguer. He says, "You guys got a choice to make. You play or you've broken your contract and you're outta here."

You're a kid with a dream who knows that maybe one of 10 minor leaguers make it to the big leagues. Maybe one of 10 of those make it for long. But now, because of the strike, you've got a shot. They'll pay you $15,000 a month to be a replacement player. That's twice as much as you ever made in a full season in the minors.

Then along comes a writer who tells you they're all bad guys: "The union and the clubs both abuse minor leaguers. They pay you nothing because if the union drove up your salaries, big leaguers would make less money. It's an elitist's system that works for players who make it big. Everybody else is meat."

For you, then, there's no good side in this war. All you can do is what your heart tells you.

You've wanted baseball enough to ride buses at midnight for a hundred and fifty a week. Three years now you've done the big club's dirty work, and for what? They've paid you nothing; they've cut your buddies with no notice; an injury and you're gone; worst of all, you know they've cheated you. They've used you as a disposable tool to get their big-bonus prospects ready to make millions while you make $3 an hour.

And now they want to use you a different way. Only now it's not a baseball thing. Now they want you to be a soldier in their dirty war. Now they want you to throw your body in front of a bullet for them. They want you to help break the spirit of the players' union. They want you to put on the big league uniforms that Andy Van Slyke won't wear, that Ozzie Smith won't wear, that Ken Griffey Jr. won't wear.

So what do you do?

You do two things.

You always said it would be a dream come true to play major league baseball. All you wanted, and all the big club gave you, was a shot. But now you tell the big club this: Whatever they're doing, it's not major league baseball. It's a lie. For their purposes, they would turn your dream into a lie. Some players can live with that lie, but not you. You're going home.

At home, you stay ready to play. You believe if you're good, someone sometime somewhere will find you. You believe dreams defeat lies.

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