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Twenty years ago, replacement players almost opened baseball season

Baseball fans from left, Michael Glass, Jason Andrade,

Baseball fans from left, Michael Glass, Jason Andrade, Tim Olds, Joe Davkins and Tom Marro express themselves during the California Angels' game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 31, 1995 in Anaheim, California. Credit: AP / Mark J Terrill

Twenty years ago, the Opening Day that no one wanted loomed over Major League Baseball.

But they'll never start the season with replacement players, right?

Fans expected the worst. When major league players went on strike after the games of Aug. 11, 1994, they hoped for a resolution that did not come. The season ultimately was canceled and, for the first time since 1904, there was no World Series.

Now it was days, then hours, before Opening Day 1995, and baseball's owners seemed intent on using replacement players in games that counted.

It took an injunction by District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the future Supreme Court justice credited by many with saving baseball, to effectively end the 232-day walkout in time to save the season.

Spring fever blisters

With labor and management far apart on the core issues, particularly a salary cap, team owners opened camps in February to replacements -- retired big-leaguers, minor-leaguers, even some with no pro experience.

The Major League Baseball Players Association considered the replacements strikebreakers for crossing the picket line. The replacements appeared in exhibition games before sparse crowds.

"It's not the uniforms people come to watch. It's the players," said Don Fehr, then executive director of the players association. "If you get rid of the best 800 players in the world and replace them, everybody notices."

Pitcher Scott Sanderson, a one-time Yankee who was winding down his career with the Cubs, was a strong advocate of the union. "We were in the position we were in on the backs of those who had come before us and fought the fights before us," he said. "Out of a sense of respect, loyalty and maybe more appropriately obligation, I didn't want to be part of a generation who ignored that or not be mindful of those who would come after us."

The replacements almost made it to Opening Day. But on March 31, only three days before the opener, the Bronx-born Sotomayor, a self-professed Yankees fan, issued a temporary injunction that was upheld by an appellate court, preventing the owners from unilaterally implementing a new collective-bargaining agreement. The landmark ruling was cited by President Barack Obama in 2009 when he nominated Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.

"Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball," Obama was quoted as saying. She declined to comment for this story.

Two decades after the strike, former commissioner Bud Selig said: "I look back at that period as almost something that history I think will record as something we had to go through. Maybe as heartbreaking and painful as that whole situation was, maybe it drove us to what is now unprecedented peace."

But there was no peace at that time. "If they thought they had a rocky relationship, they had no idea of how rocky it would become if they decided to put replacements on the field" to start the season, union associate general counsel Gene Orza said. "It would have been an incalculable mistake. The way to getting a job in the major leagues is not to step on the neck of a fellow player."

The other side of the fence

The replacements saw it differently. "I was all in, looking to do the best for the organization," said would-be Yankees pitcher Doug Cinnella, who had spent time in the minor leagues. "The Major League Baseball Players Association did nothing for minor-league players."

Cinnella, 51, now a high school baseball coach in New Jersey, was asked if he would have paid as a fan to watch the replacements. "My interest would be piqued,'' he said, "but as a diehard Yankee fan, I probably would not."

Mark Walpole, a Mercy College graduate anda replacement for the Mets, said, "I didn't consider that [players association] a real union. I was in a real union as a teacher. Guys who were making millions of dollars, I didn't have any allegiance toward that."

Some replacements received a reported $5,000 at the beginning of spring training with a bonus of $20,000 if they made it to Opening Day. Salaries reportedly were set at $115,000, with each team permitted to have three players making $275,000.

Will Clark, then the Rangers' player representative, said, "You can't replace the top echelon of a business with the lower echelon."

Clark has not forgiven those whom the union identified as replacement players, including Kevin Millar, co-host of the MLB Network's "Intentional Talk."

"Kevin Millar was a scab," Clark said. "There were 800 guys who chose not to cross the line."

Millar declined to comment, a publicist for MLB Network said.

Mets replacement player Todd Whitehurst, a 13th-round pick by the Indians in the 1990 draft, disagreed with Clark. "They're protecting the jobs they have,'' he said. "Did Will Clark go to the minor-leaguers or Kevin Millar and say here's $100,000 if you don't walk? Nobody went to any of us and said, 'Hey, we're going to help you out.' "

Rick Reed, an established player who crossed the picket line and later pitched for the Mets, had a tough time with the Reds when the season resumed. Some players would not speak to him. "Rick needed work and couldn't sit out," said Davey Johnson, Cincinnati's manager at the time. "I understood what he was doing. He made the decision for his family."

Reed still appears to be bothered by those times. "I'm just not talking about it anymore," he said. "I'm sick of it."

Long Islander Keith Osik, now the baseball coach at Farmingdale State, was a catcher in the Pirates' organization in the spring of 1995. "I think my choice was that I was just a baseball player," he said. "I was looking to play baseball. I wasn't caught up in anything else."

Osik, who made it to the majors in 1996, said he never experienced problems with other players.

That was not the case for Tony Barron, a career minor-leaguer who later played in 57 games with the Phillies in 1997. "I felt the animosity from them," he said. "There were teammates who wouldn't look me in the eye. All they saw was I was a scab, I crossed the line."

Replacements who made it to the majors after the strike were permanently denied admission into the players association.

The Ripken factor

Some of the big-leaguers were having great seasons when the strike started in '94. Matt Williams, now manager of the Nationals, had 43 home runs and was on track to tie Roger Maris' record of 61 homers in a season. But the biggest impact was on Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken's consecutive-game streak, which was put on hold at 2,009.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who as an attorney had represented labor unions, split from fellow owners by not supporting the replacements. He also stood up for Ripken, who was going after Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 straight games, a mark that would end if he missed Opening Day. "I said that would destroy Cal's unbelievable record," Angelos said. Beyond that, he said using replacements "was a sham."

Ripken said he had no intention of playing. "I didn't look at it as the streak is at risk," said Ripken, who wound up setting the record of 2,632 consecutive games. "It was a labor issue and you knew you were part of that group of players. I thought the whole notion that the players could be replaced, everybody can be replaced, but it would take probably 10 years or so to replace the caliber of talent that is assembled. So I never saw it as a challenge or a reality."

Baseball's owners had vowed to change the economics of the game but seemed split on how to accomplish it. Richard Ravitch, former chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, was hired as baseball's lead negotiator, but he abruptly quit in December 1994. "I withdrew from this mess," he said.

Ravitch described one owners' meeting in which George Steinbrenner was denouncing Ravitch's revenue-sharing plan and pointedly aimed at the Angels, then owned by Gene Autry. "He said why should they get money when they are so badly managed," Ravitch said. "I couldn't stand his voice, so I went to the back of the room and there were tears rolling down the eyes of Autry. His wife was calling Steinbrenner every four-letter word you could imagine."

The owners' resolve to use replacements was aimed at giving fans baseball, then-Red Sox chief executive officer John Harrington said. "It wasn't a pleasant thought," he said of using replacements, "but in my mind, it was appropriate to give the fans something. I'm pleased it didn't happen. It would have been talked about forever because some people would have thought we were trying to present a fraudulent product when all we were trying to do is play some baseball."

Precisely who came up with the idea of using replacements is a matter of conjecture. Some owners point fingers at each other. Selig said he didn't remember. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said: "It was the recommendation of a lawyer who represented baseball. We followed him when we shouldn't have."

Though the injunction issued by Sotomayor's decision to issue the injunction was a victory for the players, even some owners believe she made the right ruling. ``Twenty years later I would have to say it was done for the good of the game,'' Harrington said.

The renaissance

It took a while, but baseball bounced back from the strike. Selig said Ripken's march toward Gehrig's record helped put a national spotlight on the sport. Revenue-sharing and a luxury tax began to narrow the gap between small- and big-market teams. Fan interest spiked as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa challenged and broke Maris' record.

Broadcast deals with networks, such as Fox, resulted in revenues steadily rising, going from a reported $1.4 billion in 1995 to $9 billion in 2014. The top 10 seasons in overall attendance occurred in the last decade. according to Forbes. "Labor peace has been fabulous for everybody," Selig said.

Selig said it ultimately dawned on him how the average fan viewed those times. "A guy goes to work and maybe makes 40,000 a year,'' he said. "How do we think [he] is going to care about the players who are making a fortune or the owners who are worth a fortune?"

Good words to heed. The current CBA is set to expire in 2016.


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