Twenty-five years ago, in March 1995, Major League Baseball players were on strike and weren’t sure if and when spring training would begin.
The owners had decided to use replacement players, and the replacement-player season was days away from starting when an injunction by District Court Judge (and future Supreme Court Justice) Sonia Sotomayor led to a shortened spring training and a shortened season.
The strike officially ended on April 2, so the real players had to rush to get from their homes to spring training sites in Florida and Arizona for a 144-game season that was scheduled to begin on April 25.
No games had been played since the strike started on Aug. 12, 1994. Players were in various stages of being in shape or not being in shape. It was a mad scramble to get ready for a season like none other in baseball history.
Sound somewhat familiar?
The circumstances are different today for a number of reasons. Baseball players already had a month of spring training from mid-February to mid-March before games were halted and camps were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
No one knows when or if spring training will resume. No one knows if the resumption of spring training will happen in Florida and Arizona or closer to the teams’ home cities. No one knows when or if the 2020 season would begin after that.
Twenty-five years ago, players showed up and knew they had about three weeks to get ready. They brought whatever level of preparedness and fitness they had before heading out to ballparks around North America to play in front of fans who were angry that the strike happened in the first place.
For some players — especially starting pitchers — three weeks after all that time off wasn’t really enough time to get ready.
For relievers — most of whom think a six-week spring training is too long anyway — it was, as former Yankees reliever Jeff Nelson said on Sunday, “probably the best spring ever.”
And for position players . . . well, it kind of depended on how much they trained during the long break and what their status was with the team when spring training began.
“It was my first time in spring training — I was so happy,” Mets third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo said on Saturday in a telephone interview. “I’m my mind I was like, ‘Wow, I’m here with Bobby Bonilla and [John] Franco, [Bret] Saberhagen, all those guys. We opened the season in Colorado and it was freezing over there. But I was walking into the stadium and nothing seemed to bother me because I was so happy. But I’ll betcha those guys were like, ‘Hey, this is kind of weird.’ ”
Alfonso was a 21-year-old in his first big-league game when the Mets opened against the Rockies on April 26. It was the first game at brand-new Coors Field and it was a typical Coors Field game. The Rockies won, 11-9, in 14 innings — with future Yankees player and manager Joe Girardi (four hits, four runs) scoring the tying run on Dante Bichette's walk-off three-run homer.
Alfonzo had one at-bat, hitting a fly ball to center as a pinch hitter in the 10th inning. He went on to hit .278 in 101 games.
“The funny thing with that strike year, it was kind of difficult for the veteran guys to try to get in shape,” he said. “It’s not like these days. You come in spring training and you’re in shape. If you come to spring training and you’re not in shape, you’re going to be left back a little bit.
"For those days, you came to spring training to try and get in shape for the season. It was tough because those guys had to try to get in shape quickly to start the season because the decision was made kind of late. It’s kind of difficult for the guys who get used to that routine every year. That was a tough time, especially for the veteran guys.”
Bobby Jones, who started the opener at Coors Field, lasted 4 2/3 innings and threw 70 pitches. He went on to go 10-10 with a 4.19 ERA in 30 starts. His ERA was more than a full run higher than in 1994.
“I remember 1995 trying to stay informed by the players' union and our player rep as to how the process was unfolding,” Jones said in a text interview. “I was able to work out and get my arm in shape during that time. As a control pitcher, it took me quite a lot of throwing to get my command. Once we got to spring training that year, I had already been throwing for a while.”
Mets closer Franco, who saved 29 games in 1995, had a much different routine. He said the three-week spring training was just right for him to get the feel of his signature changeup.
“I thought it was great because I think spring training’s too long,” Franco said. “Six weeks is too long. As relief pitchers, spring training’s basically more geared for starters.
"I never used to pick up a baseball until the last week of January. I used to throw two times in the last week of January, two times the first week in February, two times the second week. When I got to spring training, I still had somewhat of a feel. When you’re used to throwing a certain pitch, that feel comes back real quick. Especially when you’re stuck in the Northeast, you’re always throwing inside. Once you get outside, you get different movement on your balls because of the wind and whatever the circumstances.”
Baseball in 1995 started with expanded rosters, something you can expect to see if and when the 2020 season starts. That should help if starting pitchers aren’t built up and if teams are going to be expected to play with fewer days off or even into the winter, as has been suggested as possibilities.
But no one knows how having a month of spring training, shutting it down and then starting it back up will affect players’ health and performance. That was a wrinkle that didn’t exist in 1995.
“The difference is they already started,” said Nelson, who was with Seattle in 1995 before getting traded to the Yankees along with Tino Martinez before the 1996 season. “That’s the thing that’s alarming to me. We can even go back to ’94 when we were on strike and we were like, ‘It’s later in the season and we could probably use a few weeks off.’ Then we heard there wasn’t going to even be a season or a postseason.
“But they already started spring training and now you’ve got to try to ramp it back up again? That’s going to be something that I’m going to be interested in watching, especially pitchers. Are you going to see more injuries?
"Once you get regular-season games, it’s a lot different than spring. You start doing maybe a little bit more than you’re used to and especially not training for that time. Having this time off and then restarting again, that could be a real concern, especially for pitchers. They’re going to have to get creative with some of this stuff.
"They don’t expect a lot out of starters anymore. It might be beneficial that they have a bunch of extra pitchers on their team and they go three innings and then go to the next guy.”
Social media has been full of players such as Marcus Stroman of the Mets and Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees sharing their workouts from their home gyms. Pitchers are throwing in backyards, batters are hitting in home batting cages.
But organized workouts are not happening because of social-distancing measures. Working out at home is just not the same as getting ready for a season in spring training, no matter what era it is.
“It’s not the same,” Alfonzo said. “I did that all the time. I prepared myself to get to spring training, and as soon as you walk in, every part of your body’s hurt because it’s different when you walk to the field and you see the competition, you see your team and you try to go over a lot of stuff with them. It’s different from when you’re home. I think it’s going to be a little hard for the guys, too, because they played a couple of weeks and then they stopped.”
Said Franco: “The main thing is know your body. Guys have got to know their bodies. Don’t try to push it too hard, too fast. If it is three weeks, you still have three weeks to get ready and amp it up. Just try not to go full boat the first couple of days. Nowadays, the guys are in tremendous shape. It’s a year-round thing. Years ago, guys would take a lot of time off and not do much.”