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Pawns and dreamers

Their names move across the computer screens of major league baseball offices, veiled in secrecy and controversy.

Identities will not be revealed for weeks, even as they now begin to sever ties with employers and make dramatic adjustments in family life to become potential replacement players for Major League Baseball.

The Rangers have signed 23 six-year minor league free agents, but won't say who. No one is saying. This is serious labor business, the management people say, and revelations have consequences.

Some of these mostly unknowns have given up real world jobs for this dream, or--depending on how you look at it--to participate in this betrayal.

There are a lot of striking ballplayers who would like to shove this oversized chunk of opportunity down their scabby throats.

Ninety-five percent of these pawns will not make it once the big guys return. And they will be dumped just as quickly as they were happily grabbed by the big teams who had always shunned them. The few who remain after the end of the strike, to play with the real players, will find themselves shunned in the clubhouse and a target at the plate.

And most of them know it.
"I fully anticipate for those guys to treat me like shit if I stick on with the Rangers," says Jackie Davidson, one of the "unannounced" 23 who have signed with the Rangers.

"I'm just gonna blow it off because the fans don't care. My family won't care. I have my fans--the people I know here, my family who has stood by me. They don't care."

There are a lot of unseen undercurrents in the vast flow of bull coming out of "negotiations" in Washington.

There are the replacement players--whose teams are trying to hide from media and the union until the last minute. There are the minor leaguers--who dread reporting to camp, because just being down there puts them in the middle of the war.

And then there are the major leaguers, whose problems are a day at the mall by comparison. They are also part of the problem.

Rangers general manager Doug Melvin knows the secret names of the 23--and those of other teams in both leagues. He can yank them off the computer system--a special system for baseball eyes only. He says there is a need to keep the identity of replacement players secret--probably until the day they report--because the union will harass them.

"The biggest reason is that the union will find out who they are," says Melvin, "and they'll try to work on those players to keep them from reporting.

"I have talked to players who have been contacted."
Davidson--a 30-year-old father of two until recently employed as a truckdriver for a produce company--says no one has hassled him.

Philadelphia Phillies reliever Larry Andersen, who is sitting at home in Seattle and tired of having time for cappuccino, says he has no knowledge of harassment by the union. As an active participant in most of the year's negotiations, he knows plenty. "I get all the directives" from the union, says Andersen, "and there is nothing in them about harassing replacement players. Of course that's not the kind of thing that would be put in writing."

He laughs a little.
"Of course we do have access to bats," says Andersen. He is joking.
More likely they will simply use balls, figuratively and literally--hard talk, cold stares, and some tight pitches near the throat.

"I think the replacement players understand and expect guys to be throwing at them," says Donald Harris, a union member who will be reporting to the Rangers' camp--without stigma--as a minor leaguer.

Replacement guys aren't the only ones under pressure. "The union has threatened agents with de-certifying them if they act as agents for replacement players," says Melvin.

San Francisco-based sports agent Steve Compte says union members employed the threat when he and other agents sat in on a regional players meeting. "They made it very clear at the meeting in LA that they would de-certify.

"I took this threat on face value. I haven't investigated it further because it is not something I am going to have to face."

Most agents won't. Most replacement players don't have--or need--agents. They basically walk in out of the real world and are herded into the system for an uncertain incarceration.

The owners need these pawns to keep the tit-for-tat going.
"Replacement players are nothing but a threat to the [players] association," says Compte.

"When it is all over and done--if this is ever all over and done -- they will be left in the wings, out in the cold.

"It won't just be the other players who will shun them from now on. When it is over, it will be coaches, managers, clubs--nobody will want to have anything to do with them once this is all over."

 

Compte is sympathetic to the guys doing it as a last chance. Or for a chance to better their family financial situation.

Union members like Harris, still living in the corn flakes-in-water poverty of the minors, understand too. "Bless those guys," says Harris. "I think a lot of guys in the union understand."

But as the replacement players also know, many guys will not.
"I am not nave," says Davidson. "I know they'll treat me like dirt."
This is one labor dispute where those who cross the line won't share just a post-dispute work environment with former strikers, as at General Dynamics or GM; those few who stick with the big team will share six months of meals and plane rides and hotel bars.

"I wouldn't think," says Andersen, "the threats would be physical. I think it will just be a cold shoulder."

Last Wednesday, Rangers officials met to regroup after the president couldn't get anything accomplished and all parties to the great game came off collectively as an arrogant throng of sorry SOBs.

Outside the big offices in Arlington, they were having a press conference to present new broadcaster Brad Sham, a nice pony to parade around while the circus tent is burning.

Even the idea of being in Florida for spring training burns. Says Harris: "No one wants to go down there and even look like they're being a part of it at all. "But if I want to make it, I have to go.

"I won't be a replacement player though. I'm in the union. I have a chance to platoon in the outfield. I'd rather stay [a minor leaguer] and be poor than risk everything by being a replacement."

If the strike is settled, before the replacements even get to camp, what then for guys who have quit their jobs and rearranged their lives for this dream?

Jackie Davidson is a special case. He has been out of the game just more than five years. He never made it in the bigs after a promising career at Everman High School. He was plagued by arm troubles and disillusionment, but has worked hard to get it back on all fronts. Davidson has quit his job. No more getting up at 3 a.m. to pick up produce at the Farmers Market and drop it off by 6 a.m. at various TGI Fridays around the area--including the one just below the home run porch at The Ballpark in Arlington.

And he's thrilled about all of it. "This is the greatest time of my baseball career," he says. "The minor-league life is so much pressure on a family man.

"So many days in the minors I got sick of that baloney. This--this is for love of the game."

Davidson is sitting with his two kids in his Everman living room, certain that his pitching speed, now back into the upper 80s, will land him a post-strike spot on the real team.

Already he is broke, living paycheck to paycheck. He will not get the $5,000 the Rangers have promised until April 15. He will not get paid during training. Already one house payment is due, with two more coming. He's begged creditors to just wait until April.

"I was real nervous until yesterday," says Davidson, speaking of last Tuesday, "because until then it looked like Clinton was going to be able to use his authority as President to get something done."

Davidson's high hopes now hinge on the certain incompetence of Congress and his faith that he will show enough good stuff to persuade the Rangers to keep him around.

This is not the usual spring training--filled with long workdays, crash tanning, and hard drinking. This year it is going to be just a bunch of buildings full of anxious people, surrounded by palm trees and members of a pissed-off union. Provided there is no settlement, at some point 25 guys will be asked to make the decision: will they play for a major league baseball team on Opening Day 1995, knowing all the exhilaration and condemnation it will entail?

Guys like Davidson are already shoring themselves up to answer that question. "What do I care what Will Clark or Darren Daulton thinks of me?" he says.

Though they're getting little sympathy these days, the real players have their own dilemma to deal with. Should they put down a deposit on the annual hard-to-get Florida pad--or just wait and see, and risk not knowing where they will sleep down there? On several levels there may be no room left at the inn in Florida and Arizona for a lot of folks this year.

 

"I guess you'll see me sleeping on the street," says Andersen, "drinking my replacement beer."

As spring libations go, it is a bitter brew.


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