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Major League Graveyard Needs Replacement Sound

Thu., March 16, 1995

It is so bloody quiet here that you’re tempted to root for the obnoxious drunk from central casting.


“Too many men on the field!” one hollered for perhaps the 12th time as the pitchers continued their wind sprints on the warning track in the seventh inning. “Get those guys off the field, blue!”

And into the stands, where they can make a difference.

Aside from the tanning possibilities, replacement spring training in the Cactus League feels like a shortcut through the graveyard after dark. Peoria is one of the ghost towns of Major League Baseball, where alien life forms walk around in some of the more familiar uniforms of the Seattle Mariners.

Look, No. 25 - that’s Chris Bosio. No, wait, somebody just called him Carlos. Tino Martinez is No. 23 - go get his autograph. Huh? Why do you suppose he signed it “Pat Rice?”

An ersatz Bobby Ayala stepped into the batting cage Wednesday morning and swatted a long fly to the base of the right-field fence.

“Damn,” snapped Troy Rusk, glaring at his bat, “it slipped.”

“Keep slipping,” advised manager Lou Piniella.

Piniella has seen precious little warning-track power out of his or any other replacement team. In his own mind - not for public consumption yet - he has separated the players among his replacements from the punch lines.

“I could put a bag over my head,” he confided, “and tell them apart from the sound of the bat.”

Someone beat him to it. In the box seats behind the M’s dugout Wednesday was the Replacement Fan, his head sheathed in a plain brown wrapper.

Hey, come as you are. The more, the macabre.

Eerie to the nth, spring training is shrouded in quiet. Tuesday morning’s workout was witnessed by exactly two fans, one of them the father of a newly signed replacement. Camera crews that were here a year ago have fanned out to basketball regionals instead. Even the 40-strong Japanese media contingent is absent; Mac Suzuki, their hard-throwing teenage hope, is on strike, too.

But it’s just as quiet in the clubhouse, where there is no running commentary from Junior, and in an infield starkly devoid of chatter. Throw 37 strangers together and what else would you expect?

By game time, the ennui is epidemic. Attendance at Monday’s game totaled 602. They give the counts here in triplicate: the John Ellis number (tickets distributed), the bottom line (number sold) and rock bottom (turnstile). On Wednesday, the sliding scale went: 2,098, 1,430, 1,140.

By the end of a 10-6 fiasco against the Milwaukee Brewers, maybe half that many remained.

Replacement ball is not often pretty. The Mariners committed five errors in losing to the Brewers, and six in a one-run loss a few days earlier.

“I’ve got to find nine players who can catch the ball,” complained Piniella. “The kids will be told: If they want to play, they have to catch it or they’ll sit. But I’m still going to have to put nine guys out there.”

Sounds like a slogan: Replacement Fever … Catch It … And You Could Be Our Starting Shortstop.

The replacements themselves are all decent men who all have their chasing-the-dream tales and even admit to paying off student loans or their VISA cards in the process. The hypocrisy of the fireman and the teacher who come from their own strong unions is politely ignored. Everyone is enjoying the trappings of being a major leaguer, perhaps too much - Piniella had to ban potato chips and yogurt bars from the players lounge because weights were going up instead of down.

The owners are all-so upfront about not trying to pass this off as major league baseball, to the point that what one Seattle newspaper is calling the InteriM’s - in managementspeak - temporary potential replacement players. Of course, everything in Peoria remains at major league prices, right down to the $20 tank tops.

It is very dreary and very sad. In three days here, the most exciting moment came at the end of Wednesday’s batting practice when Matt Sinatro, an M’s coach, jumped in the cage on a bet with Piniella.

“Ten swings - you hit one out and I’ll buy you dinner,” Piniella challenged. “After four or five swings, we might play Williamsport rules. If it’s out of Williamsport, it’s a home run.”

“Don’t hurt yourself, Matty,” cautioned trainer Tom Newberg.

“Yeah, the infirmary’s full now,” teased Piniella. “Delwyn, give him that corked bat you had yesterday.”

On his eighth swing, Sinatro - who hit exactly one home run in 140 major league games as a catcher - tomahawked a ball over the fence in left.

Piniella and Sinatro exchanged high fives and laughter that spread all the way to the outfield.

It was the strangest sound of the spring, because it wasn’t silence.

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