Peoria, Arizona, is a strip mall about ten miles long. At the west end, near Bell Road and 83rd Street, the Padres and Mariners share a complex of 12 full practice fields, 2 infields, and a classy new stadium. The grass is plush, blue-green. On February 21, the only clouds were high and wispy. Last night’s rain scented the balmy air. Replacement and minor-league pitchers and catchers were in camp. I had wasted a few hours mostly listening to reporters gripe about how closed-mouthed everybody was, as though afraid they’d bite the feeder’s hand. I felt surly and frustrated. I’m no reporter. I don’t want to be a reporter. “Forget this,” I muttered. I’d already put in a grueling three-hour day. It was time to go recover beside the motel pool. On the way out, I stopped in the office and talked to the Padres’ media guy, Roger Riley, to quiz him about the facility and pick up a roster. “Say, maybe you know my friend Rich Holsman. He taught my son to pitch.”
“Sure,” he said. “Rich is around here somewhere.”
I walked out grinning, rounded the building, and spied Rich coming out of the locker room. Before I got there, a radio guy impersonating Snidely Whiplash shoved a mike at him and asked how he felt about being here as a replacement. “Fine,” Rich said. “I love it. For me it’s an opportunity to be important to baseball. I’ve been out of the professional s side of the game for about three seasons now.”
“I give private pitching and hitting instruction. Through that, I’ve developed into a better pitcher. I’ve matured. I’m 29 years old, not even in my prime yet. Now here’s an opportunity for me to go out and throw the ball again and be able to afford to do it.”
Whiplash pressed, “Do you consider yourself a strikebreaker?” “I guess I would call myself an independent contractor. Look, baseball’s never been fair. If you look at my statistics in AA and A ball — I led both leagues in ERA. I played in four championship series in five seasons. Guys I pitched against are All-Stars now in the big leagues. I never embarrassed myself, but when it came down to getting a big-league opportunity, I didn’t. I gave it five years, which I’d set out to do when I first signed. At that time, I re-evaluated and had to make a choice. Either accept another AA contract or build something for the future. If somebody says I haven’t paid my dues, all they have to do is look at my track record. I’ve paid my dues and then some.”
“What do you think about the strike?”
“Well, I don’t want to punish anybody, but I’m in business. I’m a businessman. I own batting cages. I do lessons, camps, clinics, motivational talks. I know what it takes to run a business. I’ve been doing it for four years, so I have a lot of thoughts about the employer/employee relationship. The employers have to make decisions that they can live with. You want to treat your employees fairly. But going back to fairness in baseball — I’ve never seen it yet.
“The game may suffer from the strike. I would love to see those great baseball players out there. But they’ve made choices, and I don’t think I’m involved with them. I’m involved with an opportunity given me by somebody who owns a baseball team.”
Snidely wanted tension. “Are you worried about safety or heckling?”
Rich shrugged. “Hey, there are no friends in baseball. There have never been friends in baseball. Guys get released and traded, and one day they’re best friends and the next day they’re gone. If another ballplayer heckles me, so what? If somebody heckles me, it’ll probably be the media that caused it, because they talk as if I’m stabbing my friends in the back. But I don’t see it that way.”
Whiplash snagged another ballplayer, pushed the mike his way.
“Lunch?” I asked Rich.
“We already ate,” he said, “but what the heck.”
He gathered his San Diego buddies, and we crossed Bell Road to the mall, to Chevy’s Cafe. Rich Holsman, Danny Boone, Pete Roberts and I. Greg Page would join us later.
Dan Boone played high school ball in Artesia, near Long Beach. At Cerritos College, his team won the state championship, both years. From there he went to Cal State Fullerton and the College World Series. He signed with the Angels and played in their minor leagues for three years.
Over chips and salsa, Dan summarized his career. “I did real well at every level, but I got released by the Angels and signed with the Padres. They sent me back to AA in Amarillo, and again I did real well. Then I went to spring training in ’81 as a non-roster player and made the team. After a couple of years I got traded, and it went downhill from there. I got in with an organization that liked the big, strong, hard-throwing pitchers, and they kept me at the minor-league level for a year and a half, then released me out of big-league camp. I went over to the Milwaukee Brewers in ’84, played in Vancouver, and got released midway through that season. After that, I was out of professional baseball until ’90.”
“Did you come here for the money?”
“The money’s all right, and I want to take care of my family, but I love the game too. I’m concerned about what’s going on, but there again, I wasn’t in the players association that long to where I have strong ties to anybody, and to me it’s more of a players against the owners thing, and I’m just caught in the middle. I wanted to pitch at least until I hit 40, and now that I passed that up, I might try for another ten years.”
Danny’s 41. He lives in Santee, owns a small construction company. Cabinets, remodels, bathrooms, vanities. “Business is slow. I’ve got some debts I’m hoping to pay off. If somebody gets mad about [my playing], that doesn’t bother me. I have people who love me, my neighbors are excited about my playing, my family’s excited. That means a lot more to me. The other guys — well, I’m struggling in my construction business. It’s not like they’re calling and offering me money, so I’ve got to take care of my family.
“It was tough starting a new career after baseball. I struggled for a couple years. I’ve got four years of college, but I don’t have a degree, and my major was P.E. All that teaches you to do is coach, and if you don’t have a degree, you can’t coach. The next best thing for me was working with my hands, so I learned the trade of making cabinets and counter tops. And I can still pitch. I play in an adult league in San Diego from March through December. The last two summers I went up and was pitching coach and a stopper in the bullpen for the Fairbanks, Alaska Goldpanners. So I haven’t stopped playing.
“It hurt being released from baseball when I thought I deserved better. After being in the big leagues, I can’t go watch those guys anymore. Part of it may be ego. Because of my performance, I know I deserve to be out there. And it hurts to see those guys out there instead. It’s hard to get over that. I can watch a little bit of baseball on TV and stuff, but I’d rather play in our league in San Diego with the camaraderie and all than to watch the big leaguers play.”
“How much are they paying you guys?”
Rich explained that by signing a replacement contract they were guaranteed $5000. When preseason games open, anyone who crosses gets the $5000, whether he had originally signed a minor-league or a replacement contract. “If they ask who wants to cross, and 45 minor leaguers decide to cross, they’re probably going to go with those guys. But those guys are under a hell of a lot of pressure. They’d probably rather not get asked. They’re stuck in between. What management will probably do — guys like us, they’ll see if they like us. If they do, they’ll probably stick with us for the time being. So maybe they’ll ask five minor-league guys to cross. If they don’t like what we’re doing, they’ll tell us, ‘Sorry.’ Now they might ask 15 guys to cross.
“Basically, they want to have some experience, so they want some older guys. But they also want to approach the young guys. They want to get the best balanced 32-player team they can put together on the field.”
Pete Roberts explained that once the games began, the players would get a big-league food allowance. A player who lasts until the regular season would earn another $5000 bonus plus $600 a day. And $20,000 severance pay when the strike ends.
Pete Roberts signed with the Padres in 1986, a first-round draft pick in the summer draft. “I played four years at the AA level. Bruce Bochy was my catcher in ’88. I played with guys like Sandy and Roberto Alomar. Rich and I got released in spring training in ’91 by the new Padres’ administration. They brought their own guys, who forced us out. We didn’t have big-league experience but had too much experience to play A ball or AA anymore. So I moved to the Royals. I went 9-3 with a 2.40 ERA and got released. I had a real bad year.”
“Nine and three with a 2.40 ERA and you got released?”
“Yep. The thing is, you need to be at the right place at the right time when you’re pitching good. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I could’ve been called up on about four or five occasions. In ’87 in AA, I had a no-hitter going into the eighth. I had a two-hitter and a three-hitter. I mean, I was just dealing. But my shoulder goes out. I go on the disabled list. I had surgery on it. I come back. My first four starts, I’m dealing again. I get hurt, sent back to AA. In ’89 I pitched great in 44 ball games. In five games I got killed. I gave up about 15 runs without getting an out in those games. In ’90 I pitched decently in AAA, but I pitched, like, once every three weeks. Then I got sent back to AA and got nine wins in the last half of the season.
“Five years in the minors, if you don’t make a career out of baseball, can set you back. I only graduated from college a couple years ago. I was a sociology major at UCSD, because I couldn’t major in economics, because a lot of the courses were in sequence, and I could only go to school one quarter a year. I had to do the major that was flexible.”
“After baseball and college,” I asked, “then what?”
“Got a job.in the mortgage banking business, as a regional marketing director. Last year, when the rates turned, they let me go. Oh well. So I started a baseball business, part-time. I give clinics to leagues and coaches. I’ve enrolled in a master’s program in business at SDSU. And I’ve been looking for a regular job. One of the problems that always knocks me down is — ‘Pete, you’re qualified, but where’s your experience?’
“My experience is baseball. I’m 29 and I don’t have a lot of career experience except in baseball.
“Last year it looked like I might get back into baseball. Randy Johnson, a scout for the Padres — I played against him in a winter league. December ’93.I threw pretty good that day, and he said, ‘Pete, how come you’re not still playing? You’re throwing better than any of the lefties in our organization.’ I said, ‘It’s out of my hands.’ He said he’d talk to Kevin Towers, the scouting director, see if they could get me hooked up. But it didn’t work out. They would’ve had to give me a decent salary, and it wasn’t in the budget.
“This time, when they initially asked me, I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ll call back.’ What’s the moral decision? I thought it out and said okay. Call me what you want to call me. I’ve got a child, I’m looking for a job. So what am I supposed to do, say no to my kid and my wife? I can work one day into the season and make enough money to go to school full-time, get my MBA.”
Rich interjected, “It’s a question of who do you feel for, the guy who’s making a million dollars or the guy who’s just trying to survive? The way I ought to be judged isn’t as a strikebreaker. I’m not a strikebreaker. I’m a ballplayer. If I don’t do the job, then you can tell me I suck. But the media has already judged us. A guy on ESPN last night said these replacement guys got their opportunity but just didn’t make it. Well, if you’ve been around baseball, you know that a lot of times you just have to be in the right place at the right time with the right friends with the right color shirt. It’s such a minority who get to the big leagues — exceptional skill could be the reason you make it, or it might not be the reason.”
How do you like these TV and radio guys?” I asked. “They’re all in your face,” Rich said. “Trying to get the answer they want. The one they’ve preconceived to sell their product.”
Pete socked the palm of one hand with the fist of the other. “Last night on TV, a reporter says, ‘It’s unbelievable. There’s a bunch of 37-year-olds walking around here.’ Making us look like everyone here is old and fat. What’s he talking about? Look out on the field at all the lean, mean 25-or 28-year-old players.
“Rick Powers on TV says, ‘Look at these uniform numbers — 88 and 89. Look how many guys are out there.’ Well, every stinking camp in baseball the last 70 years has had guys numbered 88 and 89. Because there are minor-league guys. Everybody’s together. But they want to report it as though there are 200 fat guys, all 97 years old. They want controversy. They want some sort of friction between you and the union. ‘They called you a scab. What are you going to call them?’ If they get us into a fight, they can film it.
“The media has a fixed agenda. ‘Okay, this is the story we want to portray. How can we support it? Let’s take a picture of this overweight guy, and get a quote from this guy who’s never played pro ball before, and make our story out of that.’ I have friends calling me up and saying, ‘How many fossils do you have out there? How many fat guys?’ We’ve got no fossils, no fat guys. But can you imagine KFMB going in there and reporting, ‘Hey, these guys look pretty damned good’? No, they’re going to show the picture of the guy who drops the ball.”
“We were doing a drill,” Rich interjected, “fumbling the ball on purpose at first base. The first baseman fumbles the ball so the pitcher has to cover him. We were doing it on purpose. They were taking films. Now they’ll show guys dropping the ball. And Booney’s probably the oldest guy out here at 41, but if his knuckleball is going like it can, he could pitch in the All-Star game. How can you hit that thing? If it’s going good, he can get anybody out.”
“That’s not the way it is,” Pete said. “There are no fossils out here. Do you see any fossils? The teams are picky. The Padres anyway. The pitching coach in the bullpen, Dean Traynor, I played for in ’91. Sonny Siebert I played for in ’86, ’87, and ’88. John Matlack I pitched for in ’90. I know every one of the pitching coaches, and they know me. That’s why we got called.”
Rich added, “I haven’t heard one sportscaster yet who has shown any concern for what the union could do for the minor leagues.”
I asked how they felt about the union.
Pete jumped on that one. “Well, they’re calling us scabs. They’re trying to intimidate people into not playing. They’re trying to enhance their position. And we’re trying to enhance our position.”
“The union isn’t what unions are about,” Rich declared. “In a union you don’t have 800 guys negotiating their individual contracts. What they call a union is not a union. Just like baseball — you can call it a business, but it’s also a game. It’s a unique situation. You can’t apply the same rules. Take job security. Job security in baseball is a guaranteed multimillion-dollar contract. That’s the only job security they have.”
“Hire somebody to picket for you,” Pete said. “That’s going to help your PR. The thing is, it’s a union that won’t allow you in, but they want you not to cross the line. If I go to them and say, ‘Look, I played professional baseball, and I want to be a part of the union,’ they say, ‘No, you can’t be part of the union.’ So I say, ‘Okay, then I’ll go play baseball.’ And they say, ‘No, we don’t want you to go play baseball.’ I ask, ‘Why not?’ ‘Because we don’t want you to, and we’re the union.’ ”
The waitress was standing by, fidgeting as though she cared zip about baseball. After ordering fajitas, Rich said, “They’re such a minority at the top. They’ve got it all, and they want to keep it all. If the major leaguers came out to the public and said, ‘Hey, we’re trying to clean up the whole system of baseball and help the minor leaguers make a decent living, so we’ll take less because we’ve been in the minor leagues, we know what it’s like, and we’d like to have everybody improve their situation,’ that would be different.
“I mean, the union does good stuff for the major leaguers. Pensions,.child care. I think they have some kind of nanny program. But it’s only for the major leaguers. If I make the team and the replacement season goes one month, I’ll make more money this year than I did in five years in the minors, total. The most I ever made was $1800 a month, six months a year. That’s about $11,000. If we go one month this year, I’ll make about $50,000.”
“What needs to happen,” Pete said, “is that Congress needs to revoke the anti-trust exemption for the owners. Baseball is the only sport that is exempt from the anti-trust laws. Football, basketball, all the other professional sports in America have to operate like a business. Baseball doesn’t, because in 1918 the players went on strike, and they formed a new league, and a lot of the major leaguers went to play in that league. Well, the salaries skyrocketed, because the owners wanted to keep the players. So they got the anti-trust exemption, and the Supreme Court upheld it. Oliver Wendell Holmes. As soon as the other league folded, the salaries went back down.
“Look at the history of baseball. You can see where the players are coming from. There’s no check on the owners. In any other field, if I can get a better product out there, better service at a better profit margin, I can go out there and open a business and compete. Baseball, there are 28 teams. You cannot go out and open up shop and say this is a major-league baseball team.”
Rich held up a hand. “Wrong. You can start your own league. If your name is Ross Perot, and you want to start your own league, you can do it.”
“But you can’t join and play in the existing major leagues.”
“Well, that’s like saying I can’t go out and open a hardware store and put Home Depot on the front of it. But I could open Holsman’s Depot.”
“Sure. And I could open McRoberts’s Hamburgers, and Ross Perot could go out and start his own league. But it’s not major-league baseball.”
“He can call it professional baseball. If he goes out and hires Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, Jr., and so and so, who cares what he calls it?”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“But it could.”
Pete leaned forward contentiously. “There are political pressures. Here’s what the anti-trust exemption does. San Diego and Milwaukee are small-market cities. Because of the antitrust exemption, they cannot pick up and move. In football Al Davis closed up shop and moved the Raiders. In the NFL there’s a salary cap; there’s no anti-trust exemption. In the NBA, there’s a salary cap. No anti-trust exemption. That’s the underlying issue here. If I own a factory in San Diego and I think I can do better elsewhere, I can move anytime I want. Without an anti-trust exemption, if a ball team decides they can go to Phoenix and fill the stands with 60,000 every single day, they just go.”
Rich was shaking his head. “Even without the exemption — let’s say that he and I have an agreement to do business with you. You decide you want to move. You can. We don’t want you to move, but you do it anyway — then we’re not going to do business with you anymore. Now, say I’m in major-league baseball. The other owners say I can’t move. I can still move, I just can’t move and be involved with the rest of them. It’s the same as any business.”
Pete countered, “Major-league baseball is getting ready to go in and take over operations of the Baltimore Orioles because the Baltimore Orioles won’t put on a replacement team. Because of the way that major-league baseball is set up, they can do that. In business, you two cannot come in and take over my business.”
“They can do that in baseball because there’s a contractual agreement,” Rich said. “The Orioles have contracted to play baseball in Baltimore. If they don’t, the league can come in and take over. You’re saying if they revoke the anti-trust exemption, all the problems in baseball are going to be solved. I disagree.”
Pete sipped ice tea, caught his breath. “But a lot of the issues will be resolved. A lot of them. For instance, if I’m a small-market-city team, I’ll get up and move to Tampa-Saint Petersburg, where I know I’m going to sell out the stadium every single day. Now I don’t have any problem with the salary cap, because I’m making enough to compete.
“The way it is — say I’m in a small market. My city wants me here, I can afford to be here, except I can’t compete with Steinbrenner in bidding for the superstars. He’s paying these guys way too much money, and my fans are pissed. So as a league, we come together and agree to pay less. Now we’re colluding. That’s illegal. So now, we’re trying to institute a salary cap because we don’t trust Steinbrenner. Because Steinbrenner says, ‘Look, I get $52 million for TV revenues, why should I give you anything? And if you don’t come play me, under the league charter, guess what — you get fined $5 million. In fact, either you field a team and play under the league rules or we’re going to come and take your team over.’
“The anti-trust exemption is a big, big, big issue. It’s huge. The anti-trust exemption was used for a hundred years to not allow players free agency. Once you signed with a team, you were with that team for life. So the union was formed and fought for a long time. They sweated blood and finally got free agency in 1976 so that instead of being a slave owned by a team throughout his whole career, a player’s got some freedom of movement. If the union could get Congress to revoke the anti-trust exemption, that would be another big victory.”
“If it’s so big,” Rich asked, “why aren’t the players and Donald Fehr out waving a flag to revoke the anti-trust exemption?”
“They are. They’ve been in front of Congress three times in the last month trying to explain their position. It’s a huge issue.”
“But they would drop that in a second if the owners would agree to the terms they want.”
Our fajitas and enchiladas arrived. So did Greg Page, a college teammate of Rich and Pete. Lately he’s been working for Rich’s wife Debbie at a mortgage company. Though he’d only recently started the job, she arranged for him to get time off to try out and, with luck, to play for the Padres, “It makes it a little easier to come out here,” he said, “knowing I probably won’t lose my job. I already withdrew from school. I had just started going back for my master’s, in sports psychology.”
Greg earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from CSU Hayward. Before turning professional, he had played baseball at College of San Mateo and at San Diego State. He signed with the Giants, spent a season in Pocatello, Idaho, in the Pioneer League. The Giants released him, but the next year he got picked up by Salinas, an independent team in the California League.
“Salinas was fun,” he said. “That’s the main thing about baseball, it’s fun. You meet some interesting people and you travel, and play a game and get paid for it. It’s great.” He ordered a taco combo and ask if I wanted to know what he thought about the strike and all. I pushed the little button on my recorder.
“Okay, first and foremost, I’m a baseball fan; and from a fan’s standpoint, watching the game, baseball needed a change. This isn’t necessarily the best way for that to come about, but if some change that’s good for the game comes out of it, then I’m all for it.”
Between fajitas, Rich said, “If they acted more like a union, if they started out when the guy signed as a professional, included all minor leaguers in the union, I could back them. But the guys at the top want it all. If I’m in the big leagues, I don’t want that minor-league guy getting paid well enough so he’ll hang around and threaten to take my position. I’d rather get rid of him in AA, and I can do it, because he’s got two kids and a wife, and so he can’t play unless he gets a living wage.”
I asked what the union does for the guy who’s on the 40-man roster now and on strike, but he doesn’t make the cut. What does the union do for him?
“Sorry,” Pete said. “Sorry. You’re not union anymore. There’s a saying in baseball, ‘Get it while you can.’ The big leaguers are always telling you to get it while you can. Now the union’s saying, ‘Get it while you can, except for you guys. You guys don’t count. Whatever they offer, don’t take it.’ Hey, I’m a player too. ‘Yeah, but if you cross the line, you’re a strikebreaker. It’s our line, and we don’t want you to cross it, and when it comes down to this, we don’t consider you players.’ ”
Rich said, “You want people to rally around the union? Let’s get the same idea set up for the minor leagues as you do for the big leagues. You want me to be in solidarity with you, then you improve my situation. In 1988 I led the California League in ERA. We won a championship. I was making $900 a month. I had to have three roommates to get by. I had to buy my own cleats, sleeves, gloves. In the big leagues, you get the gloves, the shoes. Everything is free, plus the big salary. All this struggle to get there, people feel you pay the price in the minor leagues, and once you get there, now it’s payback time. The guys who are on strike, they had to go through what I went through, so they think it’s payback time, and they want to get it while they can. I can see that. I would too. I don’t blame them.
“I do feel bad for the first-year guys on the 40-man roster. Yeah, I have some compassion for a guy who’s busted his butt to get there, and he’s on the verge, and now somebody’s putting a stop sign up in front of him.”
The mariachis strolled by, whooping about Guadalajara. When the air settled, Rich was still miffed at the union. “If you let the players set all the rules, it’s like the inmates running the prison. The owners are business people. They know how to run a business. If the players were acting responsible and giving the owners some credit, okay, but they’re not. That’s why I don’t agree with the union. For instance, they’re going to go out and portray to the fans, the owner’s the bad guy, we’re the good guys — don’t go out and watch the replacements, they’re slobs, they’re no good — I don’t agree with the union for playing those games. That’s dirty cards.”
“But in any negotiation you have to portray your side in the best light.”
“Okay, but at whose expense? If the union were addressing some other issues, I might go along with the dirty game. If they were addressing the low pay and lack of benefits in minor leagues, then I would play the dirty game a little more. Are we helping ourselves or are we helping the game? Because if we’re helping the game, we know we’re right in helping the game for everybody, for the fans, for the player who’s going to come up, for ourselves. Or if major leaguers were making $2500 a month, six months out of the year, then I’d back them all the way.”
“What does it matter how much they’re making?” Pete demanded. “The principle’s the same. It doesn’t matter if they’re making a buck an hour or $10 million an hour. If the owner has a right to make as much money as he can, so does the player. You’re saying the owner can have an anti-trust exemption and all these things, run a cartel system where they control all the economic forces involved, and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, we have a salary cap.’ ”
“I’ll go play in that league.”
“So will I. That’s what we’re doing. But that’s why I believe that it’s better for baseball that the issues are brought out now, so they can be resolved now, not in four years during the next strike.”
Accompanied by an accordion, I asked, “Does anybody have hopes of making the regular team, after the strike ends?”
“It’s an opportunity,” Pete said. “I had a lot of support in the Padres’ organization. I pitched for Sonny Siebert. Sonny really liked the way I threw. He ended up moving elsewhere, doing other things. Now he’s back. Again, it’s a matter of being at the right place at the right time. I’m with coaches I pitched for along the way. Rich and I are both left-handers; there’s a lot of demand for left-handed pitchers. I’m not going to go in and say, ‘Look, gee, I hope I get a regular job.’ I’m going to do the best I can, work as hard as I can, and what happens, happens. Obviously, they’re not looking at any of us here and thinking, ‘Give these guys a couple more years and they’ll be in the big leagues.’ It’s ‘Can they do it now?’ ”
“How about this?” Rich suggested. “We start off the season as replacement players in San Diego, people come out that know us, maybe we do well. Let’s say we pitch great. The strike ends. The replacement San Diego Padres are winning. The Padres come back, all the replacements are gone, now the Padres are losing. All of a sudden the media’s all over saying why don’t you go get some of these replacements back; at least those guys were winning. Holsman didn’t walk people. Roberts was striking out the world. Everybody’s whiffing Booney’s knuckleball. Page has got the hitters falling over, chasing his sinker. Some manager’s going to have to stand in front of the media and make an explanation. ‘Well, it’s a different level.’ ‘So what? The other guys were winning, these guys are losing. Give the replacements a try.’ So this is an opportunity. The coaches are going to see us. The fans are going to see us. The front office is going to see us. That could mean something somewhere down the road.
“Remember when the NFL went on strike? The Chargers, Keith Parks, he’s a San Diego product, came back and played ten years with the Broncos. He was a replacement player. Never would’ve happened without the strike. If he didn’t cross the line, he would’ve lost ten years in the NFL. You think he cares if people say, ‘Yeah, but you were a strikebreaker’?
“How about this situation? Pete throws the hell out of the ball. He throws hard, he’s left-handed, got a good breaking ball, does everything he’s supposed to do. There are three pitchers on the, staff who are marginal major-league pitchers already. What are you gonna do? Get rid of Pete. He’s on a roll. You’ve seen him, you know he can help this team. You’re a major-league manager. You know what it takes to pitch in the big leagues, and you know this guy’s got it. They’re going to keep him.”
“How about those managers, and the coaches?” I asked. “Aren’t they in a jam, stuck between the strikers and the owners and you guys?”
“You bet,” Pete said. “Coming here’s bizarre, because you don’t know how the coaches are going to treat you, you don’t know what to expect. It could be, ‘Hey, scab.’ But it’s ‘Hey, Pete, how you doing?’ ”
Rich nodded earnestly. “The coaches are great. Over and above. They’ve really taken it to a position of, you know, this is the way things are going to be; it’s a job and I’m not going to punish somebody because they’re doing a job. They’ve bent over backwards.”
“They know that we’ve made a lot of sacrifices playing the game,” Pete added. “I could’ve been 22 when I got my degree and gotten a career job. But I put a lot of time into this career, and it’s hurting me right now. I’m trying to feed my family, and it’s ‘Hey, Pete, not enough experience.’ I sympathize with the coaches, because they were part of the union in the past, but now they’re management. And I think they sympathize with us. Most of them, anyway, are saying, ‘Hey, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Here’s an opportunity. Go out and make the most of it, see what happens.’ ”
“From the perspective of the TV guys,” Rich said, “it’s real clear and cold. But when you’re standing across from a guy who’s trying to feed his family and do the best for his future, when you get the human side of it — how can they look down on us? We’re just trying to take the opportunity that’s presented to us and do something with it, you know.”
“You guys know a lot of strikers, right? Any problems?”
Pete admitted he’d gotten indirect threats. “So-and-so said that if you play, this is going to happen, things like that. ‘Tell Roberts anyone who crosses is going to get their leg broken.’ I know who it came from and all, but I don’t care. They’re going at it as if this were some sort of moral crusade instead of saying, ‘Look, this is the reality of the situation, this is what we’ve had to do to get where we’re at and what we’ve got to do to keep it.’ They’re trying to legitimize the situation.”
“If they were honest about what they were doing,” Rich contended, “I would be with them. But when they portray themselves to the public the way that they do, if I were one of them, I would go tell them, don’t ask the minor leaguers for solidarity. The minute you go out and ask them is the day I’m not with you. If you won’t let them be in your club, don’t ask them to play by your rules. You want to do this, all right. I agree with the issues, I’m here with you, I want to make all we can make and I feel we deserve it, but let’s don’t include other people whose fight it isn’t. And the fringe player, the guy who’s a first- or second-year player — if I were a part of the union leadership right now, I would say, ‘Hey, we can still do what we want to do, but a guy who still has to make the team, you go play.’ ”
Greg offered, “In the long run, I hope this strike will be good for baseball. In the short run, of course, it sucks. For baseball, I mean — not for those of us who are getting another chance or for the guys who are losing money — for the game itself.”
“In the long run,” Rich offered, “it could bring new life into the game. Make ballplayers take a look at what they’re doing, and why. You go watch minor-league ball games at the end of the season, even the last-place teams, and you can pick some of the infielders and outfielders who’re going to be promoted, who’re going to make it in baseball. And why is that — because they’re out there busting their ass, because they know it counts down the road. So isn’t that more fair to the fan who ultimately pays the salary for somebody to play a game?
“In the major leagues — you hear Goose Gossage talking about the guys who’ve got a little strain here or a strain there — 20 years ago, those guys would play, bust their ass all the time. Was the game better off when these guys were a little bit hungrier to play? Have they taken some of that hunger out of the game? How do you get it back into the game for the fan, because that’s what he’s out there to watch. Fans aren’t out there to watch a bunch of rich guys fooling around.”
Having finished his enchilada, Dan looks contented and talkative. “If this thing goes as far as we want it to, I think there’ll be a lot of happy San Diego people, because so many replacements are from the area. I know my neighbors are all excited about it, and Rich works with all kinds of kids. It’ll be affordable baseball, too. It may not be all big leaguers, but the guys out there playing will be trying their best, they’ll be diving after balls and trying real hard, and I think the quality of baseball will be good and not a distraction from the game. Not one bit. The guys I’ve seen so far, I think our pitching staff s pretty good.”
“Did you hear what Norm Charleton said?” Rich asked. “About — he doesn’t feel right being in the same clubhouse with these guys he doesn’t respect?”
“What doesn’t Charleton respect — your game, your attitude or your bank account?”
“He doesn’t know what he means. He’s the guy in The Poseidon Adventure who tells everybody after the ship turned over to go up. And they all drown. It’s like saying there’s a guy, and somebody offered him a contract, and his wife’s working three jobs, and he can’t find a job, and he’s got four kids, but he’d rather sit home and watch Oprah! and Donahue than play ball, because he doesn’t want to cross the line.”
“He’d rather let his wife and kids down,” Greg added, “than step on the toes of people he’s never met in his life. Is Norm Charleton going to respect a guy who doesn’t work? Who’s got kids that need school clothes?”
“He’d tell him to go out and get another job,” Pete said. “Oh, that’s right, I’m sorry. He should just go out and get another one tomorrow.”
Dan said, “I’ve got three girls all sleeping in the same room. Eleven, eight, and six, all in the same room: One of them a soon-to-be teenager. I'm not hurting to add on to my house, am I?”
“But Norm doesn’t want to be in the same locker room with you. He can’t respect you. Maybe you ought to call up Norm and ask him to send you some money so you can leave — ‘Hey, Norm, talk to your union for me, see if they’ll build me a room addition.’”
Rich said, “My wife’s in a cutthroat business, but she’s tried not to lie to people or cheat people, and it’s always done her right. She knows she can sleep at night, and now all of a sudden it’s paid off for her, while other people who’re not so honest have fallen by the wayside. So you’ve got some guys here who’ve worked hard and paid their dues and are good guys. Great guys. I know that nobody at this table’s a drug addict. I know that everybody at this table has donated time to the community.
“There are a lot of big leaguers, they may have a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be my friend. I’m not going to invite them over. It used to be people would drive hundreds of miles to watch the big leaguers. Now they’re going to the minor leagues, more and more. Minor-league attendance is way up, even before the strike. Maybe it’s because the minor leaguers are putting more into the game. It could be they have their hearts in the game more than the big leaguers do.”
Greg nodded earnestly. “There are a lot of big leaguers, if they were getting paid on the kind of person they are, they’d be homeless. Something I find interesting is that the few players who’ve spoken up about wanting to come back to play, not one of them has said, ‘Hey, I want the strike to end because I love this game so badly I can’t sit down anymore.’ Well, all the guys in camp right now are guys who want to play the game.”
Rich seconded. “I’m excited. For me, the professional baseball chapter was closed. Just to be out here, now, it’s an experience you’ll be able to tell your kids about whether it goes anywhere or not. Anybody discusses the strike of ’95, you can say you were there.”
“Yep,” Danny said. “I was a scab.”
“I’m loving it,” Pete said. “The first day here, I don’t know about you guys, but I felt like everybody was looking around. Most camps it’s, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ Here it was, ‘Who’s this guy, who’s this guy?’ But by now, after a couple days everybody’s going, ‘Aw, who cares? Screw it. Let’s just go play.’ Minor-league guys are saying, ‘I made $7000 last year. Did the man say $20,000 for a severance bonus? Where do I sign up? Geez, I can make $30,000 for spring training and playing a couple games.’ ”
Boone chuckled. “I really hope these ding-dongs stay out all year.”
While Holsman and Roberts segued back into their antitrust debate and Dan relaxed and watched the mariachis, I took Greg Page aside where I could hear above the arguments and “Cielito Lindo.” He said, “You know, the game has been played for years and years, and it’s going to be played for years and years, and there are going to be lots of people involved from then to now to the future, and nobody really owns the game. The game belongs to the people, to the fans, to the father and son who go out and play catch. There are a lot of beautiful things about it. And here, this group of people are taking it away from us.
“I’m a fan. I consider myself a fan. These guys feel like they own the game. That's what’s frustrating to me. Fifty years from now there is going to be another group of people playing. Fifty years ago there was another group of people playing it. And part of the beauty of baseball is the comparisons over the years, that player, this player, between that team and this team. I don’t think it’s fair for them to say it’s our game; we’re going to take our ball and go home until we get what we want.
“As a fan, nothing’s ever happened in baseball to make me not like the game. But this is starting to do it. I’m not so sure that when this is over, that I’m still going to be a fan. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to sit out there and watch these guys and enjoy it. During the baseball season I’ll either be listening to a game on the radio, watching it on TV or at the yard. I love the game. But now I’m so fed up and frustrated with the people who have control of it, I don’t know if I can go sit at a game and enjoy it the way I used to.
“And I’m hoping that there are a lot of fans who feel the same way I do, because now, with replacements, you’re getting a whole new group of guys in there. Guys who are hungry to play, eager to play, want to play. And sure, the money is part of it for these guys, but not because they’re making a million dollars and they want to make two million. We’re talking about guys who are doing okay, who are making their rent payment and feeding their kids, but this would open a door. Maybe you could pay off your bills and start over, and maybe you could get your kids the nice pair of shoes they want. We’re talking making money on a simple level.
“For the first time in my life, I’m getting a little discouraged with the game and the players, and I’m one of the diehards. Before, you could have as many jerks in the game, you could have as many problems as you want, and I was still going to be a fan. It’s discouraging to me to find myself asking if I’m still a fan anymore.
“I have qualms about playing, for a few simple reasons. One, I believe Cal Ripken, Jr. is one of the true good guys in the game, and I’ve been pulling for him to get his streak, and I’d like to see him get it. If replacement happens, he’s going to lose that, which I’d hate to see. I have qualms because I know there are good people in the game who want to play, but they’re showing that loyalty to the union because they think they have to. I feel bad for those guys. I feel bad that if I play, they’re going to associate my name with being a jerk, being greedy, and all those bad things, and I’m never going to get a chance to sit down and talk to them one on one and say, ‘I’m not greedy, I’m like you. I’m a ballplayer who loves to play. I saw an opportunity to play, and that’s what I did.’
“The bottom line is, it’s an opportunity, and I’m going to do whatever I can to take advantage of it. It’s been my dream forever to play big-league baseball. I started playing ball when I was six. I probably started dreaming about it when I was five. Now people might say, ‘You didn’t play big-league baseball, you played replacement baseball.’ But my family and friends, who know all the time I’ve put into playing baseball, are going to say, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter, you got where you wanted to be.’ How many people can say that they’ve reached their dream?
“Besides, I’m getting married this summer, and the money would help. I’d be able to finish school and get my career started. But the other opportunity is the chance to do something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. Maybe it’s not quite the situation I wanted it to be, but it’s still the opportunity to play in a big-league baseball park. And the more opportunities you turn down in life, the more chance you have of being a failure. And I want to go into coaching, so this can only help, working with the best coaches and playing with the best players, benefiting from years and years of experience.
“I’m looking at it as a positive experience all the way, and if a lot of negative comes out of it, I’ll deal with that when it happens. It’ll be interesting to see how it all comes out. The closer it gets to the deadline of spring training games and to the season — when people start realizing, ‘Hey, nothing’s happened yet,’ then you’ll be able to tell whether the fans are really going to support the replacement teams or whether it will be, ‘We’ll go check it out’ or if it’s going to be, like, ‘I refuse to go.’ ”
Back at our table, Pete was saying, “I think the union’s position is that if the replacement games start and ten people show up to watch, now the owners are going to start losing money and say, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ ”
“The fan is the kicker,” Rich said. “If the fans don’t show up, then the players win. And if the fans show up, then the owners win. I would think that both sides have to let it go to that point now. A showdown. Maybe there are a lot of people, the average Joe, who’ll go and support the team now, with replacements, because it won’t cost them a week’s pay to see the game. And they can feel more on the level with the ballplayers. Hey, there’s Rich. There’s Pete. I was working with that guy. Some people will go who wouldn’t otherwise, just to support the replacement players because they’re fed up with the big-money players and the union.
“Last year, opening day for the Padres, maybe there were a couple of players who’d never set foot in Jack Murphy Stadium before. How do you think they felt when they first walked out of the clubhouse, when the people first put their eyes on them? That feeling of Wow! This year, it could be you’re going to have 32 guys walk out there and go Wow! The stadium is going to be electric, just because of that energy. Was last year’s opening day like that? So are we cheating the fans with replacement players? No. I mean, maybe they don’t get to see the superstar hit the home run that day. But it’ll be good baseball, the exact same game, but you’re just not going to see it done by Tony Gwynn.
“Two years ago, we were playing in the adult league, Greg and I and Lysander and Danny were there. I said, ‘You know, with the staff we’ve got, we could go down to Jack Murphy Stadium right now and pitch on that team.’ ”
Pete said, “Imagine if this thing goes all year with us. It could happen. The Padres are taking us semi-seriously. I mean, some of the other clubs aren’t taking the replacements seriously. Anyone who shows up, give them a contract, give them a uniform.”
“I heard Steinbrenner interviewed,” Greg said. “He was real upbeat about it. He’s in the biggest market there is, and he’s still upbeat about it. He was looking out over the field and saying, ‘You know, there might be a prospect out there.’ He was looking at it with a positive attitude.”
Rich wore a dreamy expression. “What if we played for six months, people in San Diego are watching a team that’s winning, and all of a sudden you pull the rug out from under us? People are going to identify with the team that’s there. Then if the regulars come back and start losing, what’s the first thing the fans will be shouting?”
“Bring back the replacements,” Dan said. “Yeah. That Boone guy, he was throwing shutouts right and left. People are saying they need to end the strike because they need to put the best product on the field, but you know what — if this comes down to the season, there are going to be some good games. Like Nolan Ryan said, there’s no player the game can’t do without.
“I don’t know who it’s going to be, but some player somewhere who wouldn’t have otherwise gotten the chance is going to make a big-league team with or without the strike.”
Day one of the Cactus League, the Padres and the Brewers are tied 3-3 in the 12th inning. I’m at home, listening to Ted Leitner and Bob Chandler wisecrack about the replacement guys and express their fervent wishes for the “real” players to return.
“Shut up,” I mutter.
Pete Roberts started the game, got stung for three runs in two innings. Innings six and seven, Greg Page allowed no runs, no hits, two walks. Rich Holsman has just finished the 12th. Two innings, no runs, no hits, a walk, three strikeouts. Leitner admits, “Holsman did a nice job of pitching.” Tomorrow, Danny Boone gets the start.
I hope the big shots — players and owners — squabble for months.