Revisiting Replacement Players

Numbers are constant. Their values held to the highest regard with no change in property. Results are black and white, absent of ambiguity. The figures serve as the gospel of human existence. From finances to communication and to baseball, their components are explicit and direct. Benchmarks and peaks lead to endless debate and a statistical revolution on the cusp of explosion. A war over WAR emerged over the last decade in the circles of baseball, evaluating, critiquing, and chastising the value of players against a replacement one. The latter had always had a place in this game, either as organization filler or a capable understudy on the 25-man roster. Their journey for replacement players are diverse yet prevalent and their plight represent perhaps the darkest period in recent baseball history two decades earlier.

The last two decades of baseball history have witnessed some of the greatest advancements the game has ever seen. From digital media, modern ballparks, to an expanded postseason, its growth resulted in peace and prosperity between the owners. The fruits of labor however had bitter origins, tearing at the fabric of the game and our country. Endless victories over free agency and other requests by the player’s union during the late 1970s and 80s led to strife between owners and players, which each side seeking to match wits. The owners sought to reverse free agency and balance the finances of baseball by colluding to avoid signing any player not under contract, compressing salaries and ultimately being forced to pay further reparations and damages to the players after being found guilty for three seasons. The seeds of mistrust were planted in the minds of the players and the cold war between both sides came to a head on August 12, 1994, when the players went on strike, effectively ending the season without resolution. Incomplete were the seasons of Matt Williams and Tony Gwynn, each seeking to shatter the records of Roger Maris and Ted Williams respectively. A lack of a postseason would pervade teams such as the New York Yankees and Montreal Expos from competing for a championship. The public was irate and had tuned out of the game, turning their attention to more worthwhile pursuits. After the owners offered a salary cap in exchange for labor peace, a six-month standoff would commence and a controversial solution to end the strike would be implemented by ownership.

After a winter absent of the hot stove league and player movement, the moderating temperatures of spring would be on the horizon with no resolution in sight and a risk of crippling losses of revenue a distinct possibility. The dearth of players meant spring training camps could not open and the entire 1995 season would be in jeopardy. The owners sought to alleviate this quagmire with a progressive and potentially destructive solution. Players not represented by the union would be tapped as replacements and spring training would launch as if no strike had occurred. The only beneficiaries in the controversial plan were select minor league players who viewed the strike as their ticket to a future big league career. Other replacement players came in the form of ex-major league players seeking for a final opportunity at fame, glory, and stardom. Pursuits of lofty visions are customarily idealistic and for the players, reality took its course. While the cost for each player would roughly be $115,000, the price of taking the field with second tier players proved costly in both prestige and credibility. Many competitors proved to be unfit for big league play, with scouts deeming most hitters only capable of, “warning track power.”

Despite the temporary windfall, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos would take no part in the charade that had become the national pastime and chose to boycott the facsimile that represented spring training. With Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games streak in mind, Angelos would choose not to risk history at the expense of an immediate need. “My position hasn’t changed,” Angelos said. “The use of so-called replacement players would stigmatize the game.”

Tigers’ Manager Sparky Anderson would express similar sentiments. The first man to win a World Series in both leagues, Anderson elected to not sacrifice his principles and lose the respect of his players. “I cannot bargain my integrity,” Anderson said. “I am not going to tarnish this game.” Anderson would manage one final season in the big leagues before ultimately calling it a career.

The quality of play at replacement spring training resembled a glorified minor league contest. Many players reported out of shape and the public was not buying the guise of professional baseball. As frustration mounted over the games themselves, the press grumbled in frustration. The situation became so dire that Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay quipped on the air, “If you are scoring at home, you really ought to get some help.” The darkness of the game’s imprudent decision-making and public alienation reached its peak as baseball reached the summit of despair.

Despite the ramifications, players not represented by the union would utilize replacement spring training to either begin or resume a career. Doug Sisk and Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, antagonists on opposite spectrums during the 1986 World Series, would share the chance to revisit previous triumphs and defeats. Others such as Shane Spencer, Benny Agbayani, Rick Reed, Brian Daubach, and Lou Merloni would establish themselves years after the strike. Beginning in 1998, eleven consecutive postseasons would contain at least one replacement player, including six of seven World Series between 1998 and 2004. Their names would become synonymous with some of the greatest moments in baseball history. Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Damian Miller would be behind the plate for the club during Game 7 of the 2001 World Series as he witnessed his club defeat the Yankees in a thrilling Fall Classic. Kevin Millar, the man behind the Red Sox’ “Cowboy Up” and “The Idiots” teams, would become a vital member of two World Series winners in Boston, including the 2004 squad that broke the “Curse of the Bambino.” Both of the aforementioned players got their starts as seemingly anonymous replacement players.

Though labor restitution and resolution arrived later in 1995, the wounds of these players in the minds of baseball management never healed. As a consequence of crossing the picket lines, no player who participated in any replacement activity would be permitted to become a member of the players’ union. Their names or likenesses could not be featured in apparel, video games, or any material produced by Major League Baseball. For the egregious sin of contributing to a single spring training game as a replacement player, Damian Miller would not be included on Arizona’s playoff or World Series t-shirts following the 1999 and 2001 seasons.

Cory Lidle would receive flack throughout his career from his teammates for crossing the picket line and was never fully accepted as an equal on the active roster. As a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006, Arthur Rhodes expressed his true emotions about Lidle: “He is a scab,” Rhodes said. “When he started, he would go 5 1/3 innings and (the bullpen) would have to win the game for him. The only thing Cory Lidle wants to do is fly around in his airplane and gamble.” Two months later, Lidle would sadly perish in an aviation accident at the age of 34.

Following a month of artificial spring training, the union and the owners were still at odds. By the end of March, Congress would intervene. President Clinton had attempted unsuccessfully to reach a resolution back in early February, but the task to end the baseball strike would ultimately fall in the hands of future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. A judge in the Southern District of New York at the time, Sotomayor would carefully evaluate the case and rule on March 30 that the owners’ practice of using replacement players was in good faith in terms of negotiation for a new collective bargaining agreement. An injunction was reached, forcing the players to return to work under the terms of the expired agreement.

Though baseball had returned after a 232-day work stoppage, wounds stemming from the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and replacement players at spring training would take considerable time to mollify. Opening day commenced in late April to the tune of empty seats in most ballparks and to fans who brazenly showed up throwing dollar bills and other forms of currency onto the field. To make matters worse, the existing television contract held by ABC and NBC under the “Baseball Network” umbrella enacted restrictive broadcast practices including regional coverage of the postseason. Fans had lost patience and trust in the game.

Baseball, the sport they played as children on open sandlots, ceased to exist. The advent of an advantageous era of offensive production, new ballparks, and a more favorable television deal with FOX would help the game gradually recover with the 1998 season and home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa easing the tensions of the strike. The game would enjoy labor piece for the next two decades and replacement players took on a different connotation through advanced metrics and statistical analysis. Instead of debating about replacement players, labor, and financial injustices, we discuss whether the Cubs Kris Bryant is worthy of cracking the Cubs Opening Day roster or if the Nationals’ Max Scherzer will adjust to the rigors of the unfamiliar Senior Circuit.

The unspeakable practice of replacement players during spring training twenty years ago taught us how finite both baseball and life can be. Thoughts, notions, and beliefs once commonplace were no more. Financial gain and corporate assuagement took precedence over fundamentals. Second-best would suffice. Loyalty and integrity was all but eradicated. With a new basic agreement coming in 2017, the lessons of the 1994 strike and replacement players cannot be forgotten. The darkest period of recent baseball history nearly crippled the sport. The game improved dramatically in terms perception and credibility over the last two decades and the impact and influenced regained cannot be replaced.

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