The doors to the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training clubhouse
are open, and hanging inside each of the 40 lockers are blue, gray
and white jerseys with familiar names sewn on the back, uniform
pants that have never touched infield dirt and windbreakers with
tags still dangling from the sleeves. An unopened FedEx envelope,
the sender's money wasted on next-day delivery, rests on a chair
in front of catcher Mike Piazza's locker, and two full cartons of
Bazooka bubble gum sit on a table in the center of the clubhouse.
The room is frigid because the air conditioning is on high. Linger
a moment too long and you begin shivering.
``It's like walking into a funeral parlor,'' says Dodger
traveling secretary Bill DeLury. ``Every time I take two steps
into the locker room I have to get out of there real quick.''
``It should be filled with laughter and guys talking,'' says Mike
Busch, a minor league third baseman who had a locker in this room
last spring but was dropped from L.A.'s 40-man roster during the
winter. ``Now it's just dead quiet.''
Last week when the baseball strike passed the 200-day mark and
exhibition play began, it was obvious that more was missing from
Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., than the major leaguers. The
spirit that had turned the place into a spring training mecca is
absent as well. Imagine a heavy-metal concert at Carnegie Hall or
bad community theater on Broadway, and that is replacement
baseball in Dodgertown, the gem of spring training diamonds.
March 13, 1995
Baseball poets rhapsodize about spring training as a time of
rebirth and renewal, but now they must come up with new metaphors.
``I've seen more life at a mortician's convention!'' Dodger
manager Tommy Lasorda shouts when his farmhands appear listless
during a workout. A funeral home? A mortician's convention? How
about a morgue, a place for unidentified bodies? Take your pick,
This spring Dodgertown is a ghost town. During the first few weeks
of camp when hundreds of fans ordinarily would be milling about
the compound, only a few ambled along Duke Snider Drive, Vin
Scully Way, Jackie Robinson Avenue and Roy Campanella Boulevard to
watch workouts. First-time visitors still marveled at the 450
pristine acres, which include five ball fields, citrus groves and
two golf courses, but they barely took notice of the uniformed
players walking the grounds.
There were even empty stools at Bobby's 3, a local hangout for
Dodger fans where, during spring training, patrons normally stand
three deep and shout their drink orders to Smokin' Joe behind the
bar. A few days before the Dodgertown exhibition opener, a 5-3 win
over the Detroit Tiger replacement players last Friday, two
longtime Dodgertown regulars, Headgear and Pittsburgh Brad, both
retirees from the City of Steel, had plenty of elbow room.
``I don't know if I'm going to the game,'' said Headgear, reaching
for his vodka and water. Known as Headgear since he started
wearing a hat in high school to hide a case of premature baldness,
he has made the trip to Vero Beach for the past 30 years. In fact
he is such a spring training fixture at Bobby's that co-owner
Bobby McCarthy had a brass nameplate inlaid at his usual spot at
the bar: IN HONOR AND DEEP APPRECIATION TO HEADGEAR.
``It's hard to say,'' said Pittsburgh Brad, who a few years ago
decided he liked Dodgertown so much that he moved to Vero Beach
permanently. (No one ever bothered to change his nickname to Vero
Beach Brad, though.)
``Probably not going,'' said Headgear, whose right arm was in a
sling, the result of a fall on the ice back home. ``We were both
strong union men. I was a steelworker in Pittsburgh. Brad was a
firefighter. But, then again, we never miss opening day. Oh, I
While Headgear and Pittsburgh Brad pondered whether to attend the
exhibition, several of the Dodgers' minor league players wrestled
with the same question. Those minor leaguers were being asked by
the front office to serve as replacement players, at the risk of
being branded strikebreakers by the Major League Baseball Players
Association. However, unlike the major league teams that signed
beer league players as replacements and were sending home minor
league players who refused to participate in spring training
games, the Dodgers didn't sign a single sandlot player and were
offering an incentive package to induce minor leaguers to play in
exhibition games. Those who agree receive a $5,000 bonus, the
major league spring training per diem, a substantial increase in
salary (for example a Class A player who made $1,000 a month will
earn $3,000 a month) and a guaranteed job in the minors for the
rest of the season at that higher salary. Those who do not wish to
serve as replacements can remain in the minor league camp and
compete for a job, just as they would in any other season.
``We met with each player and told them that they were under no
pressure at all to play,'' says Charlie Blaney, the Dodgers'
director of minor league operations. ``They will be judged the
same regardless of whether they accepted the offer or not.''
Last Friday when the replacement players trickled in groups into
Holman Stadium for the game against the Tigers, none of them were
stopped by fans with Sharpies asking for autographs on balls and
hats and bats. ``To be honest, I didn't even know there was a game
today,'' said Class A catcher Ryan Luzinski, a son of former major
league slugger Greg Luzinski and one of those who decided not to
be a replacement player. ``It's just so quiet.''
Headgear and Pittsburgh Brad, their skinny white legs roasting in
the early afternoon sun, were standing outside the entrance to the
clubhouse. ``Yeah, we're here,'' said Headgear. ``But we're not
They didn't recognize any of the players, but they knew the
coaches and staff members, many of whom stopped and said hello.
Team physical therapist Pat Screnar pointed to Headgear's right
arm and cracked, ``Fall off the bar stool?''
``Hey, guys!'' said Lasorda, as he jumped into a golf cart with
his name written in script across the front. ``Glad you made it!''
Lasorda headed for a gate at Holman, where a senior citizen
bedecked in Dodger blue stopped him. ``Tommy, are you happy with
the crowd?'' she asked, motioning toward the stream of fans with
hair as white as Lasorda's.
``I'm happy every day I pick up the paper, read the obituaries and
don't find my name in it,'' Lasorda said, and then disappeared
through the rightfield gate.
When the manager stepped onto the field moments later, Hail to the
Chief blared from the speakers. As Lasorda neared home plate he
shouted, in a voice normally reserved for arguments with an
umpire, ``You want baseball? We'll give you baseball! I guarantee
you you'll get your money's worth!'' The fans stood and cheered.
More than ever, Lasorda was the main attraction.
The paid attendance at Dodgertown for the Tiger game was 3,079,
but that included 2,500 season tickets; the actual attendance was
more like 2,000. By contrast, last year's Dodgertown opener drew a
near-capacity crowd of 6,408, and L.A.'s exhibition opener against
the New York Yankees last Thursday in Fort Lauderdale drew only
about 500 fans. Still, Friday's turnout at Dodgertown was pretty
good for a replacement game because some Vero Beach regulars are
so loyal to the team that they didn't much care that the Dodger
catcher's name was Paul Wittig instead of Mike Piazza, or that Jay
Kirkpatrick was at first instead of Eric Karros or that Johnfer
Landrum was in rightfield instead of Raul Mondesi, the 1994
National League Rookie of the Year.
It's a good thing they didn't much care, too, because what they
witnessed was a sloppily played game in which there were six
errors, the highlights being a Wittig home run and a throw by
Tiger replacement shortstop Kevin Pearson that landed just a few
rows from the top of the stands behind first base. Long after he
had exhausted every superlative in the dictionary in praise of his
team's victory, Lasorda reflected on what has become the strangest
spring training in baseball history.
``To see the locker room empty makes me sad,'' he said. ``I want
them to come back. I miss Mondesi. Last spring I threw him 175 to
200 curveballs every day. I miss going out to dinner with Piazza
and Karros. I call them Hall of Fame eaters.''
Lasorda continued his lament, going through almost half his '94
roster, a team that was in first place in the National League West
when the strike began last Aug. 12. ``It seems long ago,'' Lasorda
Less than two hours' drive south of Dodgertown, in Delray Beach,
Piazza, the star of that team, has been training at the Bucky
Dent Baseball School, which is close to his South Florida home.
One day last week Piazza walked past the baseball fields, the
austere dorms and the two outdoor batting cages, and said, ``Kinda
like Dodgertown, huh?''
Several other major leaguers who live in the area work out at the
school with Piazza a few times a week. ``There's Ken Hill,''
Piazza said, pointing out the Montreal Expo pitcher, who won 16
games last year. ``The last time I caught him was in the All-Star
Game in Pittsburgh.'' It seems so long ago.
The group set up for its makeshift batting practice: Boston Red
Sox second baseman Luis Alicea stepped to the plate; free-agent
catcher Todd Pratt, formerly of the Philadelphia Phillies, took
the first turn on the mound; Hill was in leftfield; Piazza was in
center, shagging flies with his catcher's mitt; and a reporter
with the arm strength of . . . well, of a reporter, was in right.
``If anything comes from this strike, maybe the players and owners
alike will learn not to take the game for granted,'' Piazza said
later. ``I miss spring training and all the fans that stop you on
your way to the games. I miss the locker room jokes on the
rookies, kangaroo court and Tommy, the ringmaster, in his golf
cart. I think I heard his voice when the team bus passed by on its
way to Fort Lauderdale. I could hear him saying, `You and Karros
eat so much, you should have your knife and fork bronzed.' ''
Piazza laughed at the thought.
A staunch supporter of the union, Piazza believes that he might
not be back in his Dodger uniform until June or July -- and with
talks between owners and players having broken off again on
Sunday, he could be right. ``If the strike isn't resolved by
Opening Day, Karros and I joke that we'll go to Dodger Stadium,
but we won't buy tickets,'' he said. ``We'll have Tommy leave them
for us. We'll sit in the stands, take our shirts off and have our
stomachs hanging out and a beer in our hands. I'll yell, `You
bums! Who's that guy behind the plate? We want Piazza!' ''
So will a lot of other folks seated around him.