The last hurrah

Last Thursday, there were guys in tears, literally kneeling to kiss the infield dirt at the Ballpark.

On Friday, those same guys hit singles and almost beat the Astros in an exhibition--their only exhibition--on this field.

And by Sunday, their replacement butts were out the door quicker than a drunk peeing off the upper deck during the national anthem.

Warring factions of fools have now agreed to play baseball under the exact same system they have been unwilling to play under for almost a year.

We will have 144 games, more than 800 unsigned players (out of about 1,000), and another 200 who are free agents. The free agents won't even have camps to show up at this week, so the union is setting up a special facility for them in Homestead, Florida.

Yep, for all the strange doings this year in the life of baseball--and we must refrain from use of "big league" as an adjective here--this past week was certainly the most bizarre.

Friday's exhibition games were downright surreal. Though it was the closest the game had come to real in months--at least the lights were on in the big-league houses--it seemed to symbolize all that was wrong, and all that really is still right, with this game.

The mid-1930s gave us the "gashouse gang." It was the nickname of the rowdy St. Louis Cardinals, inspired by the nasty bar-brawly "gashouse" district in New York.

Well, Donald Fehr and Bud Selig wrought the short-lived coffeehouse gang in Arlington: an espresso-bar worker from California threw the first pitch. When it was all over, as the reporters departed one by one, the pitcher, Tom Arrington, faced a single notepad, a tape player, and a camera guy doing live shots without a reporter.

"What's your name?" the camera guy asks brazenly.
"Ah," says Tom Arrington, formerly of coffeehouse fame, "Tom Arrington."
Could you spell that?

Long-honed prima donna etiquette causes me to flinch like a border collie at the onset of a domestic dispute. But no ugly words fly. "A...R...R..." Tom politely begins.

Maybe some of the less-patient regulars will be a little more like Arrington when they return. Maybe.

Also on this one night, in another part of the county, the real Rangers' second baseman, Jeff Frye, was signing balls for some kids as part of his job working for a car dealership during the strike.

Juan Gonzalez was supposedly in Buenos Aires recreating. And Jose Canseco, now of Boston, was at his home, waiting on a shipment of exotic lizards that were intended to fill voids in his life during the strike but were too late getting there.

Across the continent, the very fate of the coffeehouse gang, as well as striking lizard boys everywhere, was being mulled over by player leader Donald Fehr and the yapping owner du jour. Earlier in the day, the players had said, after a judge ruled in their favor, that they would return under the old agreement--which they officially did Sunday. Which is a lot like going back to your old spouse even though he's still leaving the lid up and sleeping around the trailer court. An agreement based on those terms sets baseball up for more of this bullshit in the future.

After the game in Arlington, someone asked manager Johnny Oates if it seemed like real major-league baseball. "Well," said Oates, "that's what it's called, isn't it?"

Well, not exactly, Johnny. That's what the guys still paying you are calling it.

In this meaningless exercise of a game, Arrington had fielded a ball and tossed it to first to end the first half-inning of replacement ball at the Ballpark.

The crowd stood and applauded like Kenny Rogers had just retired the side in the home opener. Except one woman is holding a sign reading: "Millionaires stay on strike."

The players see the sign, and are excited.
Consider the odds good that the returning major leaguers will not receive such an enthusiastic response April 26.

Players union leader Donald Fehr is the most conspicuous villain in public minds. If this night's crowd got its way, Fehr would be incinerated; the owners would merely be battered and fried.

But since Fehr and his bargaining-table co-conspirators will be well-sequestered after this travesty is finally complete, it is the returning big leaguers who will field the anger of a nation.

Back at the Ballpark, the real--and not replacement--applause begins again when Miguel Sabino gets a hit for the Rangers in the bottom of the first.

"Where'd they get this guy from?" asks a sports columnist sitting in the press box. Another reporter reminds him that he should remember Sabino from spring training.

"Was he there when I was there?" the columnist asks.
"Yeah," the answer comes back. "Remem-ber, he was the guy who didn't have the first baseman's mitt and had to borrow one?"

Oh, yeah.
The fans do the Wave. It prompts the only tinge of real-baseball emotion I feel: the Wave is just as dadgum irritating here as it is in a normal spring exhibition game.

I like the replacements. They're playing their hearts out. I also actually respect major leaguers for sticking to their guns.

But the situation has soured baseball--for all fans. It's hard to commit your heart to a season when everything in this usually constant and reassuring game is in such chaos.

In the clubhouse after the game, it looks like the post-game of any normal big-league home opener. There are balloons and trinkets in lockers from proud moms and dads, kids and wives. There are cameras and notepads and a horde of radio mikes trapping men before they are dry from the shower.

All in all, the guys were more cooperative and unnaturally polite. But there are also plenty of regular big-leaguers who are cooperative and polite. Mostly, it was all the same.

Oates was asked the usual questions before being asked about replacement players.

Did he feel bad for these guys, who had worked so hard for such short-term rewards?

"They're naive," says Oates, "if they thought they were definitely going to play."

Well, yes, everyone understood that--but then they worked so hard, and it became so real. Replacement right fielder Tony Chance is across the clubhouse talking plays. The precarious tenure here is definitely on his mind.

"I didn't know what to expect," he says. "I looked up here [at the stands] and thought, 'man, there's a lot of people here.' I think this night is enough for these guys if it has to be."

Three lockers down, the starting pitcher of the coffeehouse gang is trying to honestly answer the question: Could he play ball at this level after the strike? "When I walked out of that tunnel, I had a tingling sensation," says Arrington. "This feels and looks almost like an amusement park. Being in a ballpark of this caliber, there is a sense of everything being escalated a notch."

Escalated, but not normal. Excitement is tempered by reality. Every strike has a morning after. "To be honest," says Arrington, "this is an awkward feeling. This situation hasn't really happened before. It is awkward."

It's like the holiday you got moved to the grownup table, even though you knew the only reason you made it to there was because those older cousins from Odessa were delayed by ice. Now the roads were clearing before dinner was over.

Jackie Davidson, named opening day strike starter, is taking his children inside the clubhouse. "Dad?" the kids ask. "Can we go in here tomorrow?"

No--and never again.
Back on the elevator running between the press box, garages and clubhouse, a handsome young man in a major-league-issue black turtleneck and expensive-looking sports coat gets off the elevator at the wrong floor.

"See that guy," says the elevator man. "That guy was the first pitcher for the Houston Astros tonight.

"I forget his name," the elevator man says, laughing, "but he was the starter."

That would have been Tyrone Narcise. We'll probably all forget his name quickly.

But this bizarre night, the chaotic 234-day strike is forever imprinted on our memory.

No one--not owners, not regular or re-placement players, not fans--will be able to forgive.

Or forget.

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Jennifer Briggs