This week marks the 20-year anniversary of the end of perhaps baseball's worst stretch, when the 1994-95 strike canceled a World Series, alienated fans, led to Montreal losing the Expos, prompted Bud Selig and the owners to use replacement players, convinced Michael Jordan to end his baseball career and forced some striking players to take other jobs. Jobs such as stocking shelves at K-Mart, Mike Gallego says.
Really? K-Mart? A major leaguer who competed in three World Series stocked shelves for minimum wage?
"Seriously," said Gallego, now a coach with the Athletics. "That was a tough gig. I couldn't wait for baseball to get started. Baseball was a lot easier than that, I'll tell you that right now. I had to get up at like 3 in the morning and get there and make sure all the things were stocked ... toys, clothing, food, everything.
"It was like, 'Here's your pallet! Those pallets in the corner are yours, load them up!' It was serious work. My kids can't believe it."
Gallego said he did so because there was no money coming in and because he didn't know how long the strike would last, wanted some walking-around money and needed something to do. "It didn't pay much, but it put things in perspective, that's for sure," he said. "When you've got a family, you've got to do what you gotta do."
While some players took odd jobs and others simply stayed on strike, the major league teams went ahead with spring training in 1995 by signing borderline players, some of whom had been working Wal-Mart-equivalent jobs as warehouse workers, security guards, firefighters, bartenders, painters, etc. These were the infamous replacement players who took the field in Arizona and Florida that February and March.
The replacement players ranged from former major leaguers trying to restore careers, such as Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, to some future big leaguers, such as Kevin Millar and Brendan Donnelly, to the more numerous players who never came close to the majors.
Pitcher Steve Otto, for instance, hadn't played professionally in four years, had never played beyond Class A and was working for Minnesota-based Ecolab. After having attended a tryout, he came home to find a message on his answering machine from Twins general manager Terry Ryan inviting him to spring training. "Oh, my God," Otto thought. "I'm saving this tape forever."
Otto accepted the invitation and left for Florida, using the two weeks of vacation he had coming to cover part of his spring training expenses. He wasn't trying to upset the players' union. He was just looking for another opportunity to play the game he loved so much.
"My wife said 'You have to go and try it,'" Otto recalled. "We didn't have children, so it wasn't like I was risking a lot. When you have a real job and you have to wear a suit and tie, and then you get to go play baseball, you realize how lucky you are to do that."
The talent of the replacement players wasn't high, though not all understood what their actual level was. One player, as longtime Oakland equipment manager Steve Vucinich recalls, said he was going to live on the other side of the bay so that when the regular major leaguers finally reported, he and Rickey Henderson could commute together. "Like he was going to make the team and be a teammate of Rickey Henderson," Vucinich said.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon was in charge of organizing the Angels' spring training for the first time that season. He says the obvious difference was between having average everyday major league players in camp "and a guy who could possibly play once every two or three weeks at the major league level. Or not at all."
The teams may have been signing replacement players, but not everyone in management went along with this strategy.
Detroit manager Sparky Anderson refused to manage replacement players that spring. Baltimore owner Peter Angelos not only refused to sign replacements for spring training, he insisted the Orioles would not play replacement games in the regular season. Angelos was a labor lawyer, so using replacements was anathema to him. Plus, a season with replacement players would have ended Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive games playing streak just before he was about to break Lou Gehrig's record.
Not that the managers and coaches who worked with the replacements enjoyed the idea, either. Bruce Bochy was just starting his career as a big league manager with the Padres. "It wasn't a fun time, I'll say that," Bochy said. "Fortunately, [Padres then-general manager] Randy Smith allowed me to back away from it but it's not a time we care to reflect on, to be honest."
Otto had not played beyond Class A, but said being a few years older might have helped make him better that year. He enjoyed spring training -- he even fondly recalls the soggy Blimpie submarine sandwiches the team ate for lunch each day -- but when his two weeks of vacation ran out, his Ecolab employer declined to give him a leave of absence. He was forced to either leave spring training or quit his job. He chose to quit his job and stayed with baseball.
The real players refused to capitulate, as well. They were not going to "cross the line."
"I remember sitting down and having a conversation with my grandfather because he was a union guy," said LaTroy Hawkins, then with Minnesota. "He was a steel mill guy. I didn't know about strikes and he told me about guys crossing the lines and how it was something you can never even consider doing."
Current managers Lloyd McClendon and Bob Melvin were near the end of their playing careers at the time. Without contracts, each was asked by organizations to cross the line, but neither even considered it. "I wasn't going there," Melvin said. "There was no way."
Cubs broadcaster Ron Coomer, who was in the Dodgers organization at the time, said Los Angeles put a lot of pressure on minor leaguers to cross the line and play (which he did not). It was an especially difficult situation for minor leaguers who weren't on the 40-man roster but occasionally were asked to play in the replacement games. They weren't in the union, but they didn't want to go against the union either. Yet they also didn't want to upset the team employing them and dictating their careers.
"It put them in a terrible position," Coomer said. "It was really unfortunate for some of those young guys. ... It was just a terrible situation for everybody. I think ownership handled it poorly. I think the players' union handled it poorly, because everyone was put in a tough spot and some of those young players ended up getting the brunt of all the issues that happened."
Others suffered in different ways. Ron Gardenhire, then the Twins' third base coach, had his Achilles tendon torn by a replacement player who rounded the bag too wide and stepped on his lower calf. He missed three months of the season due to the injury.
"I remember sitting down and having a conversation with my grandfather because he was a union guy. He was a steel mill guy. I didn't know about strikes and he told me about guys crossing the lines and how it was something you can never even consider doing." LaTroy Hawkins
And then there was Michael Jordan, who also refused to play with the replacements during spring training in the White Sox minor league camp. Instead, he left the Sox and returned to the NBA, announcing in a fax "I'm back!"
The major leaguers, however, were not back. Just days to go until the scheduled Opening Day, the teams still were preparing to begin the season with replacements. The Giants and Athletics left their spring training sites in Arizona to play the annual Bay Bridge exhibition series in San Francisco and Oakland. Because it was the first time any of the replacements had ever played in a televised game, many asked Vucinich for videotapes of the game.
As an appeal by the major leaguers went to U.S. district court at the end of March, the replacement players watched ESPN each night for updates.
"I think we knew deep-down that the strike would end," Otto said, "but we just hoped that maybe it would extend a few extra days and give us a chance to play in those parks like Fenway and Yankee Stadium [where the Twins were scheduled to open the season]."
The Friday before the scheduled opener, now-Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor ruled in federal district court on behalf of the players, effectively ending the strike. "Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball," President Barack Obama said when he nominated her to the Supreme Court in 2009.
She did not save the careers of the replacement players, though.
Teams bid a quick goodbye to the replacements, paying each $5,000 for their time. The Twins replacement players ate pizza from cardboard boxes while waiting for the traveling secretary to arrange their flights home. Mariners manager Lou Piniella had not been in favor of replacement players -- at one point, he was angered by how they were overeating the food provided in the clubhouse -- yet felt so bad when he had to break the news to them that he teared up.
One player went into Tony La Russa's office and slapped a tape recorder on his desk. When La Russa, then the manager of the A's, asked why, the player said, "I always wanted a recording of me being cut by Tony La Russa."
Otto says Ecolab offered him another job after the strike ended, but he was so caught up by the game again that he decided to instead pursue his passion further by working as a baseball instructor. He spent the next decade teaching kids from age 5 to high school how to pitch. He eventually returned to Ecolab, where he now works.
And yes, he still has the answering machine tape of Ryan inviting him to spring training.
Getting back on the field
Spring training with the real players resumed days after the strike ended, but camps were reduced from the standard six weeks to just three weeks. Because of the shortened spring, clubs opened the season with expanded rosters, which benefited Hawkins.
"I only made the [the Twins' roster] out of spring training because of the expanded roster," Hawkins said.
At least Hawkins, currently the oldest player in the majors at 42, opened the 1995 season in the big leagues. Other players weren't so fortunate -- and we're not talking about the replacements. Many veteran players didn't have contracts because of the strike, so baseball held a free-agent camp in Homestead, Florida. Among those hoping for a contract were Dave Stewart, Andy Van Slyke, Frank Viola and McClendon. When a player signed with a team, the tape with his name on the locker was removed and attached to a pole with other such fortunate players. "You aspired to be one of those guys," Melvin said.
When Opening Day arrived, there still were 20 players left unsigned in the free-agent camp. Exactly one fan watched them that day, along with two reporters; there were no scouts. Responding to a comment that they were like the kids no one picked to play at recess, McClendon replied, "That's a good analogy, but it goes a little deeper than that. They can at least stick those kids in right field."
The Adirondack Lumberjacks, an independent minor league team, sent letters to the remaining players, offering opportunities with the team that probably paid less than $1,000 a month. "If you are still without a job by June 1st, you are welcome to come to the Adirondacks where there are plenty of lakes, golfing, fishing and more, in a comfortable small town atmosphere," the letters read.
Well, it probably beat stocking shelves at K-Mart.