Irreplaceable? Only in Stands in This Game

Baseball, after all, is just a game. It can be played anywhere. By anybody.

I got my first lesson in this regard in 1958. When the Dodgers moved from Ebbets Field to the L.A. Coliseum, the game's purists were appalled, then angered. It was the ruination of tradition, we were told.

Upholders of the flame from columnist Red Smith to Commissioner Ford Frick assured us that moving to the lopsided configuration of the Coliseum, where the left-field fence was only 250 feet away, was going to make a mockery of the game, destroy all the home run records including Babe Ruth's then-hallowed 60 a season. It was the death knell of the game as we knew it.

An old editor of mine, Frank McCulloch, an ex-minor league pitcher, scoffed. "You can play the game on an ice floe if you want," he claimed. "We used to play it on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific."

He was right. Ruth's record was not only safe, the most homers any Dodger hit were 22 by Gil Hodges, five fewer than he had hit the year before in Ebbets Field and not only 38 short of Ruth's record but 21 short of Duke Snider's Ebbets Field record. It was, it so happened, 25 short of the league-leading 47 hit that year by Ernie Banks in the Chicago Cubs' traditional ballpark, Wrigley Field.

So, the game can be played anywhere. If Toronto has to play in a minor league park in Florida, it'll still be three-strikes-you're-out, Ball 4-you-walk stuff. It doesn't matter if it's in an empty lot with rocks for bases or a state-of-the-art-domed stadium, it's the old ballgame.

But can it be played by anybody? Replacement players, for example?

Well, Buzzie Bavasi for years was the premier executive of the big leagues. He used to put the Dodgers in a World Series annually. No one knew the game better than Buzzie. Here is his take on the grand old game in the year of Our Lord 1995:

"This morning, your paper carried a front-page story re the strike. The story quoted a Joe Girardi. He gave his opinion of the caliber of baseball that will be played if replacements are used. Good gravy, 300 players that played in the big leagues last year were replacement players! All of the 300 would be wearing Pawtucket or Paducah across their jerseys if it weren't for expansion."

The major league camps are full of Walter Mittys today. They have climbed down from their trucks, out from behind their lunch counters, untying their aprons to fulfill their fantasies. It is the outraged notion of most people in my profession that they are disgracing and degrading the uniforms they wear, that for them to don the uniforms Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig once wore is sacrilegious, blasphemous.

Hey! Lots of guys in Yankee uniforms--or Cardinal uniforms or Dodger uniforms--over the years have batted .219, couldn't hit the curveball. The "Miranda Line" is .201, hit by a Baltimore regular in the 1950s. Zoilo Versalles batted .196 for the Dodgers in 1968.

Everything is relative. Bad hitting? Bad pitching will cancel it out.

The real danger, it seems to me, is not ineptitude. It's the opposite. It's that, somehow, a journeyman hitter somewhere will hit 65 or 70 home runs against that bad pitching. Or that a pitcher will dupe all those wanna-be hitters and break Nolan Ryan's one-year strikeout record. Or that the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941 will be some busboy.

Maybe there will be a real Ty Cobb or Willie Mays in all that flotsam and he'll hit .450.

It's not the .209 hitters who will ruin the game's image. We've always had plenty of those.

Strikebreaking is as un-American as the goose-step. We've never liked guys who take the workingman's job during a strike. Scab is as pejorative a word in the language as snitch, slut or pimp.

A guy who would take another man's job is a despised subhuman. He and others like him have usually needed troops to protect them in this country. They are loners, scorned and despised by the rank and file.

Some of the umpires who crossed the picket lines a few years ago hung on to keep calling the games but were never accepted by their colleagues. Ballplayers who disregard the strike can look forward to the same treatment.

But in baseball, is this such a bad thing?

It's a matter of record that Ruth and Gehrig didn't speak to each other for years. But the Yankees won pennant after pennant.

On the famous double-play combination, Tinker to Evers to Chance, Tinker and Evers didn't speak to each other.

The Charlie Finley Oakland A's used to have fistfights in the locker room--then go out and win the World Series.

Baseball is not a team game. It's a recital. In football, if the pulling guard or the blocking tight end doesn't like the running back, he's got career trouble. In baseball, if your teammates don't like you, what can they do? Spray shaving cream in your cap?

Baseball is harder to kill than Rasputin. By all rights, it should have a lily on its chest now from what the owners and players have done to it. Its throat should be rattling.

But the ultimate executioners are the fans. They're the ones with the mute, the remote control, the ticket money, popcorn money, the plastic to buy the caps and jackets at the ballpark.

They're the only ones who can bring the parties to the bargaining table. Not the President of the United States, the greatest union leader in the world, the federal mediator or any owner or general manager in the business.

If they don't go to the games, or watch the games--or support the game concessions--they'll be the ultimate strikebreakers. Only don't call them scabs. They won't have jilted the game, it will have jilted them.

If they don't go to replacement games, there won't be any. If they don't go to regular games, there won't be any.

Baseball will have died on third. In the bottom of the ninth with the winning run at the plate, it will have popped up.

The only thing that could have saved it would have been replacement owners. Fans, you see, can't be replaced. They're the only things in the game that can't.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World