January 23, 1995 in Sports

This ‘Baseball’ Will Strike Out At Most Parks

John Mcgrath Tacoma News Tribune

Replacement Players.

The very term is deceitful.

When you toss a pail of tap water down the drain and fill the same pail up with that sudsy swill you’ve just squeezed from the kitchen mop, you’re not replacing the water.

By the same token, when major league baseball owners can’t hammer out an agreement with striking players and decide to restock their rosters with pathetic has-beens and frustrated wannabees so desperate for a taste of the bigs they’d lick the crud off Bud Selig’s boots, that’s not replacing the players.

Of course, it’d be a mouthful to refer to those men destined to fill major league rosters in 1995 as Pathetic Hasbeens and Frustrated Wannabees So Desperate for a Taste of the Bigs They’d Lick the Crud off Bud Selig’s Boots.

What we need is an accurate, terse synonym. Here’s one: Losers.

This former card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Railway Carmen will not tire you with a pro-union filibuster. It’d be politically incorrect and, besides, it’s ludicrous to equate the plight of unfathomably wealthy major leaguers with Norma Rae’s 18-hour days spent in a firetrap factory.

My gripe has less to do with organized labor than contrived shams: If, sometime this summer, a pitcher on the Philadelphia Phossils throws a perfect game against the Los Angeles Codgers, the achievement will be deemed legitimate. Somebody who doesn’t even belong in the major leagues will share residence in the record book with such names as Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan.

The homer leaders, the batting champs, the MVP recipients, the World Series winners: may they forever wear an ugly little asterisk on their faces.

To be fair, the 1995 season won’t be the first time the talent pool has been flooded with substandard pro athletes. During World War II, baseball historian Bill James estimates, no more than 40 percent of the players were of major league caliber.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, in 1941, there were 5,800 professional baseball players in the United States. By January of 1945, 5,400 of them had spent time in the service.

Rare was the mid-‘40s lineup that didn’t include somebody who was considered physically ineligible for military duty. (The two most notorious examples: St. Louis Browns outfielder Pete Gray, who had one arm, and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Joe Nuxhall, who was 14 years old.)

“With most of the good players in the service,” James has written, “a collection of old men and children and men with one arm and seven dependents gathered regularly and battered around a dull spheroid, and this was called ‘major league baseball’ for four years.

“This baseball was characterized by low batting averages, low home run totals, and an unusual number of bases being stolen by anyone aged 37 or younger. Strategy came to the fore, as it always does when talent is in short supply, plus there were some terrific pennant races and an unlimited supply of fresh human interest stories. On that basis the baseball of the war years was probably, in its own way, as enjoyable as any before or since.”

But that was different. That was during a war, a real war, and what baseball lacked in artistry it made up for in its ability to provide stability on the home front.

Despite the blustery strike rhetoric and all tasteless references we keep hearing about baseball’s “nuclear winter,” the debacle the sport has become still ain’t war. It is an insane standoff between a players association that ought to consider returning to the field (and settling the issues in court) and owners obviously bent on busting the union.

As this surreal spring-training season approaches, I find myself grappling with three questions.

Will I watch major league baseball in 1995?

Will I be interested?

And will I pay to go as a fan, as I’ve done during family outings to the Kingdome and a few favorite stadiums around the country? (For the past three decades, I’ve considered no summer complete without a visit to Wrigley Field.)

The answers: Yes, I will watch, but only because I am a sportswriter. If the boss requests my presence for a showdown between the Seattle Ancient Mariners and the Texas Strangers (or the Oakland Zzzz’s, or the Minnesota Long Lost Twins), I will go, grimacing all the way.

But no, I won’t be interested, and no, I won’t pay for a family outing with my wife and my kids.

To put it as gracefully as possible: Hell no, we won’t go.

Major league brass defending ersatz baseball are calling it a simple opportunity for fans to enjoy baseball again. But Tacoma will be home to a Class AAA team that would expose the Ancient Mariners as glorified fantasy campers.

Not only will Tacoma have better baseball players, but the games will be outside, on grass. Other than the possibility of a close friend or favorite relative taking the pitchers mound, what would inspire a clearheaded person from Pierce County to pay to sit inside the Kingdome this season?

A moment ago I lamented the inherent impurity of 1995 box scores, but there’s one statistic I’ll be monitoring with sincere glee: attendance.

If the strike isn’t settled, if the likes of the Boston Drooping Sox and the California Fallen-Arch Angels visit the Kingdome this season, Tacoma will outdraw Seattle.

Book it.

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