Taking Chances Former WSU, Gu Stars Were Running Out Of Time
Just across the weight room from the Seattle Mariners’ major-league clubhouse is the wait room.
The minor-league clubhouse.
And minor it is. In no more space than that reserved for the 40 men normally under big-league contract to the M’s, four times that many players knock elbows dressing to pursue their own dreams.
Major-league clubhouses are grand. Minor-league clubhouses are Grand Central.
In the thirsty Arizona mornings, Terrel Hansen lockers, takes batting practice and shags flies with the minor-leaguers. Afternoons, he suits up and shares the field with the Mariners’ replacements.
“It’s just really different,” said Hansen, a veteran of eight seasons in the minors since being drafted out of Washington State University.
“Guys on the minor-league side are getting ready for their seasons, whether it’s going to be in Tacoma or Appleton or wherever. Guys over here still aren’t sure what’s going to happen, so it’s really quiet - almost like they’re afraid if they say anything it’ll all be over. It’s like night and day sometimes.”
In this spring of roofers and bartenders making like the boys of summer, never has the 50 feet of carpet separating the two clubhouses seemed so wide. Or so narrow.
Last week, Hansen - career minor-leaguer who had argued with himself all spring - signed a replacement contract, if only to remove that reference from his resume. Meanwhile, in the hushed uncertainty of the big league clubhouse, John Tsoukalas - who made his decision before he ever reached Arizona - can only hope for the same chance.
The economics are familiar by now. A $5,000 bonus to sign, with another $5,000 due if the regular season begins with replacement players and they are selected for the 32-man roster. The pay is $625 per day - $115,000 for the season - with $20,000 in severance if the strike should end.
To scab or not to scab is no longer the question.
Baseball’s dubitable replacements have answered the call of management with a “yes” that has somehow managed to be both resounding and equivocal. Terrel Hansen and John Tsoukalas live just across Puget Sound from one another, but came to be here in very different ways.
And if the strike is not just about money, then neither is the notion of being a replacement.
A second chance
Professional baseball and John Tsoukalas gave up on each other about the same time.
Drafted in the 16th round by Toronto after his junior year at Gonzaga University, Tsoukalas had spent two summers in the Blue Jays system - one rewarding, the other regrettable - before being released in the spring of 1993.
“I was glad, actually, to be out of it,” said Tsoukalas, who hooked on briefly with Florida before being released again. “I didn’t think I was getting a fair look from Toronto and basically I was asking for my release - and when there weren’t any other solid offers, I really wasn’t that disappointed.”
He returned to school - first at Gonzaga, then at Seattle University. Last summer, he worked in the Edmonds school district’s SAIL program for at-risk teens. He had taken a preliminary exam with the Seattle Police Department and was closing in on degrees in criminal justice and psychology when baseball’s Great Replacement Hunt convened.
Tsoukalas, a third baseman in college, was suddenly in demand. The Jays, Rockies and Phillies called - and finally Seattle, in his own backyard.
He had never really let go of baseball, playing summers with the semipro Seattle Studs. His minor-league career, brief as it was, had been spent in other time zones, far from his family. And there was the money . . .
But what about the bad memories from his first pro experience?
“I think I’ve matured a lot since then,” Tsoukalas said. “Coming out of college, I thought maybe certain things should be handed to me or whatever. I just felt I was good enough to play with anybody, but now I realize I’ve got to make it on my own. Everybody in this game has talent.”
Tsoukalas included. He is not a replacement-caliber glove man - the M’s have moved him to the outfield - but the coaching staff is intrigued by the swing that made him a .364 career hitter in college.
And Tsoukalas himself is intrigued by the possibilities of having Lou Piniella as a captive audience rather than just the minor-league staff. The Seattle native is only 24 - still young enough, he thinks, to be worth a roster spot in the organization once the strike is settled.
Besides, he enjoys “being treated like a major-leaguer, from the clubhouse guys to the coaching staff.”
So there are “no mixed feelings.
“I have some friends still in the minors and maybe they wouldn’t agree with what I’m doing, but if it wasn’t me it would be somebody else,” he said. “I was watching Tony LaRussa the other night on TV and he was saying it’s a way to keep the game out there. It’s not a bad game. The talent level is pretty fair. These guys are good people, and if nobody else roots for us, we’ll root for each other.”
His last, best hope
Who in baseball had a thornier dilemma this spring than Terrel Hansen?
The Bremerton native is 28 years old and coming off his best season in baseball - at the Class AA level. A free agent after six years in the Expos and Mets chains, he signed last spring with the Mariners and was sent to Jacksonville in the Southern League.
“I’d had a bad year the year before and took a significant pay cut, which is understandable - that’s how I think a lot of guys should be paid,” said Hansen. “But I knew I’d get my game back on line.”
That he did. He hit .317, shared the SL home-run title with 22 and led the league in slugging percentage while making the all-star team - as well as the Topps Class AA all-star team. A free agent again, his re-signing with Seattle was a no-brainer: the M’s made Tacoma their Triple-A affiliate in the off-season.
“I’ve got a half-hour’s drive to the ballpark,” he reasoned, “or if something happens, I take the ferry to Seattle.”
Something happened. Not surprisingly, Hansen ate up replacement pitching as a fill-in, leading the team in RBIs and hitting .300. It was closer to .400 until more and more minor-leaguers began to accept roster spots.
“You’re used to playing with guys who are your ability level. You come over here and some of the guys just aren’t that good - they haven’t been playing for a while and they’ve got to make up for lost time.”
In some ways, so was Hansen. Three years ago, he spent two days in the majors, but never played. He was a Triple-A regular for three seasons, but never went to spring training with a legitimate chance to earn a job.
“I know for a fact I wouldn’t be getting the at-bats I’m getting if the regular camp was going on,” he said. “I’d get one here or there, like I used to, but nothing like this - four or five a game sometimes. I don’t know what will happen, but at least the majorleague staff is getting a look at me.”
He also knew that, eventually, he’d have to make a decision.
“In January, I told Seattle I’d play (replacement games) - now I’m playing it day by day,” he said before his decision to sign. “Call me what you want. They asked me and I’m doing it for them.”
Hansen knows he won’t get many more chances at his age - and when the real major-leaguers come back, he may not get another.
“But what’s going to happen to me?” he wondered, again before his decision to sign. “I can still play Triple-A. Some of these guys here are going back to Pepsi or Payless, you know what I mean? As a career minor-league guy, you know you’ve got a job in Triple-A.
“But what if we go back to Triple-A and never get called back because of animosity or whatever? You have to look at your age and situation. You could say, ‘Screw it - if I don’t get called up, I don’t get called up. I have a chance to make a few bucks here.”’
M’s officials have told potential replacements that they won’t allow rancor in the clubhouse when the striking players return.
Last Monday, Hansen made up his mind and agreed to play in replacement games come April 7 - moving himself out of the wait room, if only temporarily.
Only now he’ll be waiting for a strike settlement, to see exactly where he stands.