Dream On

Sorting through big league wannabes seems as futile as efforts to solve the baseball strike
February 13, 1995

Jamie Nelson hit cleanup every night in 1992—pushing a mop on the late janitorial shift at a Southern California high school. "I've been in the big leagues," he would say to himself, "and now look what I'm doing." Nelson, who played 40 games for the Seattle Mariners in 1983, laughs now and says, "If you'd told me as I was slumped over a toilet, trying to clean it, that I'd be in a big league camp in '95, I'd have said you were full of what was in the bowl. Never in a million years."

Believe it or not, it looks as if the former custodian will be the Kansas City Royals' No. 1 catcher when the club opens spring training on Feb. 19 in Baseball City, Fla. Nelson, 35, is just one of hundreds of guys that major league teams have collected to use either as replacement players or to fill minor league rosters, in case striking major leaguers aren't back to work by Opening Day, April 2.

And there wasn't any indication, when SI went to press on Monday night, that the big leaguers would be returning to their teams soon. If anything, the Major League Baseball Players Association, as well as the owners, appeared content to wait and see what would unfold beginning on Tuesday, when federal mediator William J. Usery, at the urging of President Clinton, was scheduled to present his own plan for ending the six-month strike.

Any hope that the owners and players might settle the strike themselves disintegrated on Sunday night, when, after the players' association announced the end to its six-week freeze on contract signings, the owners turned right around and instituted a signing freeze of their own. Union executive director Donald Fehr was furious. "It's the most provocative thing they could have done," he said, suggesting it was a direct affront to the President, who had urged both sides to end their dispute by 5 p.m. Monday or his office would intervene.

"We're not going back to the 1994 system," said one major league executive. "That's gone forever."

But the owners had indicated they would return to the old system last Friday night, when they rescinded their salary cap after being informed by the National Labor Relations Board that it would issue an unfair labor practice complaint, alleging that the system was implemented illegally on Dec. 23. The owners and players then exchanged proposals tied to a luxury tax on team payrolls, but the proposals were so far apart that negotiations ended Saturday night, and Clinton's intervention became inevitable. But as of Monday night, the President didn't seem to have the clout to brine an end to the strike.

All of this was music to the ears of Nelson, who is eager to return to the majors after a 12-year absence. "It's a done deal; I'm in a three-point stance right now," says Nelson, who doesn't care if he incurs the wrath of striking players. "This isn't about me against the players; it's the players against the owners. This is about me for me."

After retiring from baseball following the 1990 season, Nelson went back to school to earn an associate of arts degree, taking classes and also coaching at Orange Coast College, in Costa Mesa, Calif., while cleaning carpets for a living. He moved on to coaching positions at UCLA and California Baptist College, in Riverside. When the carpet-cleaning business folded, he started scrubbing toilets.

Last spring Nelson ran into an old friend, former major leaguer Ed Jurak, who was managing in the Texas-Louisiana League, a Double A-caliber independent loop. Jurak persuaded Nelson to come play for his team, the Mobile Bay-Sharks, and Nelson eventually wound up as a player-coach, hitting .387 and even going 3-0 as a fill-in pitcher.

On Jan. 25 the Royals purchased Nelson's contract for replacement purposes, but he's going to spring training intent on sticking with the team even after striking players return. "I can still play, and I need the money," says Nelson, who has been coaching at Spring Hill College in Mobile in return for his tuition there. "I've got student loans up the ying-yang. I'm tired of doing —— jobs. I'm elated, rejuvenated. What more can a guy ask at age 35?"

Or even 44? That's the age of former Milwaukee Brewer centerfielder Gorman Thomas, who hasn't played since 1986 but has talked with his old team about being a replacement player. He's planning to participate in the club's fantasy camp next week and then go on to the Brewers' minor league camp. While acting commissioner Bud Selig, the Milwaukee owner, isn't happy about using replacement players, obviously some owners believe fans will buy tickets regardless of whether they're watching Gorman Thomas, Frank Thomas or Mario Thomas.

In fact, baseball is being transformed into one gigantic fantasy camp, filled with has-beens and never-wases—and dreamers who in the last six weeks rushed to be scrutinized by major league scouts in try-out camps that were largely a waste of time. The Atlanta Braves scheduled a try-out in Atlanta, and 1,300 players showed up before the camp was rained out. Another 1,300 went to a three-day camp hosted by the California Angels, who happily signed nine players to minor league contracts. At a Pittsburgh Pirate tryout, a 55-year-old pitcher, who had played in an amateur senior league, claimed his velocity had increased as he got older.

"I can't go anywhere without someone telling me he's trying out," says Pirate coach Rich Donnelly. "A mechanic, guys at the mill. Two doctors said they'd quit their practice. They're serious. They think playing in Triple A and belonging to AAA is the same thing. I figure someone came to a tryout camp wearing wing tips. It's a bunch of Ralph Kramdens. It's amazing what fans think of major league baseball."

The Cincinnati Reds' tryout camp in Plant City, Fla., was run by the team's scouting director, Julian Mock—a fitting name, given the state of the game. One pitcher, a fat guy in his 30's, arrived at camp carrying his gear in a bowling-ball bag. Of course, Clint West, 24, who pitched at the University of Cincinnati and appeared in two games for the Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent Northern League in 1993, was in Plant City—his 127th tryout camp, lifetime. "I'll drive 700 miles one day and 400 the next day just to be seen," he says. "I'm planning to go to all the replacement-player camps."

Jimmy Ashcraft, 37 years old and a grandfather, usually drives the Cincinnati team bus during spring training, but he tried out as a pitcher. "My dream is to ride the bus, not drive it," he said. "I got pointers from some guys on the team last year, so I thought I'd try out. If I didn't, I'd regret it the rest of my life."

When he took his turn on the mound, Ashcraft was wearing gray socks, oil-stained sneakers, a first baseman's mitt and—are you ready for this?—a watch. He threw 40 mph. Maybe. "I wish I'd gotten my curveball to break a little more," he said. "But at least I didn't throw one over the fence like the guy next to me."

The concept of replacement baseball is revolting to almost everyone in the game, including some owners. But until a labor agreement is reached, it is the owners' chosen alternative to not starting the season at all. For the last month scouts and general managers have been dragging sandlots, tryout camps, the Mexican League, independent leagues and the depths of the minor league system, looking for players who have—or once had—some baseball skills. Those players also have to be willing to cross a picket line if asked.

"It's discouraging," Montreal Expo general manager Kevin Malone says of laying the groundwork for a 32-man replacement roster, "but at least it can't get any worse." Malone says he and his staff have called about 500 players since the first of the year, with roughly a third saying they wanted to play, a third saying they didn't and the rest being unsure. "[Former major leaguers] have called me laughing because they've been contacted by some teams," says a prominent player agent. "Some of these guys have been out of the game for eight years."

On the other hand there are teams that, instead of contacting hundreds of players, chose to wade through the deluge of calls from people seeking tryouts. "We got calls from people in their 50's," says Chicago Cub G.M. Ed Lynch. "We won't have a problem with quantity, but I can't attest to the quality." That goes without saying.

"It's a very negative situation, but we're trying to make a positive out of it," says Cincinnati G.M. Jim Bowden, who intends to fill his replacement roster with players from his minor league system. "I don't think replacement players—I call them substitute players—should be guys who were released two years ago or retired two years ago. I'd rather have young, hungry players."

In any case, general managers and scouts agree that the quality of play will be poor—low Double A ball, at best. "It won't even be as good as college games," one veteran scout said.

If anyone is benefiting from the strike, it's the independent leagues and their players. Since the first of the year the Northern League, another Double A-caliber association—which many baseball executives predicted would never last when it debuted three years ago—has sold approximately 50 player contracts to big league teams for $3,000 each. That's about a 40% increase in player movement during the same period last year. "I've never seen anything like the frenzy of the last three weeks," says Mike Veeck, who owns the Northern League's St. Paul Saints and has sold off 11 players. "It's been like piranhas gathering around a carcass." The fast-rising Texas-Louisiana League has sold around 30 contracts, most for $4,000. The money from the sale of players goes directly to the leagues.

Many players from the independent leagues have signed minor league contracts, with the hope of staying with a major league affiliate after the strike. But many of the former big leaguers, such as Nelson, have signed special replacement-player contracts and—despite their fond hopes—stand little chance of being retained after the strike ends.

Another such player is Danny Boone, 41, who pitched with the San Diego Padres and the Houston Astros in 1981 and '82, bounced around the minors for several years, learned to throw a knuckleball in the late '80s and then resurfaced briefly with the Orioles in 1990 before retiring after the '91 season. He has been working in construction, mostly doing kitchen remodeling, but business hasn't been good lately. He has a wife and three young daughters. The Los Angeles Dodgers, the Royals and the Padres all called him, and he signed with San Diego, his hometown team.

"It's not a real difficult decision; it's a financial decision," says Boone. "I understand the players' cause, but my cause is more important—my family."

Players who sign replacement contracts will receive a $5,000 signing bonus (payable April 16), an Opening Day roster bonus of $5,000 (payable May 1), a minimum salary of $115,000 and $20,000 in termination pay. "The money is good enough for me," says Boone, who has been pitching in a San Diego semipro league and has served the last two years as the pitching coach-stopper for a team in the Alaska Baseball League, a summer league primarily for college players. "My neighbors are all excited about watching me pitch at Jack Murphy Stadium. And my girls love baseball."

While it's easy to laugh now, baseball won't be very funny if there's no end to the strike once spring training starts, on Feb. 16. Teams will leave their major league clubhouses empty, housing players in minor league complexes until the start of the exhibition season, on March 2. Workouts will be held on secondary diamonds, where minor leaguers normally train. The clubs also will not specify which players will serve as replacements until absolutely necessary. That way, if there's a settlement in, say, mid-March, returning players will not know who was ticketed to replace them. In fact, for exhibition games, teams will use alternating lineups so the players who will end up as scabs will not be so easily identified.

The Toronto Blue Jays' radio network has announced it will not broadcast games involving replacement players. Announcer Tom Cheek, who has worked every Toronto game since the club's advent in 1977, says he'll be back "when Ed Sprague, not some furniture mover from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is playing third base." Radio and TV stations in other big league cities are reviewing their contract obligations in the face of a likely drop-off in advertising revenue.

Most teams have promised to slash ticket prices if the 1995 season starts with replacement games, hoping to attract fans who suddenly could become an important factor in breaking the labor deadlock. At least one owner believes that if every game drew a crowd of at least 15,000, the pressure on the players to settle would increase, but if only 2,000 fans showed up, that added pressure would fall on the owners. One G.M. says his team has sold 15,000 nonrefundable season tickets, and the club would make more money with replacement players and smaller crowds than it would with its usual attendance and a $35 million payroll.

All that's certain now is that players such as Jamie Nelson—instead of the likes of Jeff Bagwell and Greg Maddux—are packing for spring training. Now Nelson just has to figure out whether he'll be able to continue his one-hour radio show that airs on Wednesdays in Mobile. It's called Out in Leftfield.

Which is where baseball is right now.

PHOTOSCOTT HALLERANSome heavy-duty dreamers ran for their baseball life as Blue Jay scout Chris Buckley tried to keep a straight face. PHOTOROBERT BECKBoone (opposite) wants to put away his sandpaper, and Nelson (with Mobile) has dropped his mop. PHOTOCOURTESY OF JAMIE NELSON[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSDAVID KADLUBOWSKIJosh Spring and Roger Abrams (opposite) came up snort in their Toronto tryouts. TWO PHOTOSDAVID KADLUBOWSKIAshcraft (near left) will be back in the Reds' driver's seat; Blue Jay hopefuls won't get even that close. PHOTORICARDO FERRO[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)