Only their dreams are major-league

January 23, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The flood waters have receded, and storm-ravaged California is beginning to dig itself out of another terrible mess, much as it did after the fires of 1993 and the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994.

Certainly, against this backdrop, the labor problems of Major League Baseball don't seem like much, and yet it is here that the sport has chosen to begin a rebuilding process that could be a disaster in the making.

Tryout camps are popping up all over. Baseball owners apparently are going through with their threat to use replacement players to break the players strike, and there is a shadow army of frustrated jocks and former professional players that seems more than willing to help.

Even though they are prohibited by Ontario law from using strikebreakers, the Toronto Blue Jays still put hundreds of candidates through the motions at Long Beach City College and Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley this weekend.

The California Angels drew nearly 1,000 on the first day of a three-day tryout camp at Cal State-Fullerton, prompting local sports columnist Randy Youngman to speculate that the long-suffering franchise might be the only club to end up with a more competitive team.

That's about as funny as this is going to get. The owners appear ready to use strikebreakers to open the 1995 season if members of the Major League Baseball Players Association carry their 5-month-old strike through spring training. They have to find them somewhere, so a number of teams have chosen to audition unaffiliated players at camps such as these.

They are not all in California. The Blue Jays also tried out players at their spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., over the weekend. The Atlanta Braves scheduled camps in California, Texas and Florida. But Southern California is the most logical place, because it is home to the most fertile baseball scouting fields in the world.

Most clubs intend to stock their teams largely with fringe minor-leaguers and six-year minor-league free agents, but they'll need help to fill their replacement rosters and keep their minor-league clubs stocked.

The last of the heavy rains that turned the state into a disaster area would prove an inconvenience, but the weather did not discourage large crowds of potential strikebreakers from coming look for a small and perhaps dubious place in baseball history. What does that tell you about the state of baseball and the sympathies of the fans?

"It tells me there are a lot of guys who love the game and would love to have an opportunity to play," said Angels official John Sevano, one of the dozen-or-so front-office types who struggled to make Friday night's crowded workout run smoothly. "This is something we dream about as kids -- to get that one opportunity, to have a chance to be looked at by a major-league scout . . . and hope. That's really what they're doing here -- hoping."

Hopes and dreams

Most of them were dreaming. There was a catching candidate who had to be 280 pounds. There were at least a handful of pitchers who were pushing 40, even though the open invitation was extended to players ages 20 to 26. Some dreams die harder than others.

"Half of these guys play weeknights at 6 p.m. with a 12-inch ball," said Sevano.

The union has not sprung any serious leaks, but there are plenty of lesser players willing to play for a minimum salary of $115,000 if the major-leaguers won't come back for average salaries 10 times that.

"These guys [the striking major-leaguers] are just spoiled," said pitcher Jamie Gomez. "They're just making too much money. Guys like me would play for $30,000 a year. I can't handle these guys charging for autographs. It makes me sick."

That kind of attitude makes it easy to consider crossing a picket line. Gomez, an equipment operator for the Orange County water department in California, winks when he says he is 24 years old, but wouldn't blink at a chance to pick up where he left off after four seasons of small-college ball.

Thousands of players go undrafted out of high school and college, so there is always the possibility that someone slipped through the cracks. Baseball scouting is a sophisticated art, but there were 43 undrafted American players on major-league rosters last year, and there have been some high-profile players who turned up in the majors after going unnoticed in school.

Florida Marlins closer Bryan Harvey, for instance, was playing for a semipro softball team when he was signed by the Angels in 1984.

"There are some all-stars," said regional scout Tom Wilkens, who ran the Blue Jays' tryout camps in Long Beach and Woodland Hills. "Larry Bowa, Brian Downing, Tommy Herr. It happens for a number of reasons. Guys get stronger, or, for whatever reason, they don't go to college. Right now, one of the Braves' top pitching prospects -- Terrell Wade -- was found at a tryout camp."

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