SARASOTA, Fla. -- There were too many 12-hour work days for Rod Robertson to keep up with the baseball strike. Robertson, who will complete a decade of minor-league service this year -- his first year in the Orioles organization -- would occasionally hear bits and pieces about the negotiations from his father.
But Robertson never made any phone calls or studied the issues deeply. He was either going full bore at the paper mill near his home in Everdale, Texas, six days a week, or spending time with his three children.
Robertson and other minor-leaguers throughout baseball are being pushed into the middle of the storm that rages between the major-league players and owners. Historically, minor-leaguers have been poorly paid by their parent organizations, and the union has virtually ignored them. Now they are being asked to choose sides.
Last week, union head Donald Fehr announced that any minor-leaguer -- as well as any player signed to replacement contracts -- who appeared in a spring exhibition game will be considered a strikebreaker by the Major League Baseball Players Association.
He reiterated that message in a memo released on Tuesday.
Yesterday, the owners' side fought back, releasing a statement entitled -- surprise -- "Major League Baseball Rejects Union Position On Spring Training Games."
It was just another heavy round in a war that is raging into its seventh month: "It is unfortunate this union of millionaires would threaten minor-league players who live on shoestring budgets for performing their jobs," the owners' statement said.
Unfortunately for Robertson and players like him, the owners did nothing to remove the minor-leaguers from the middle of the fight; rather, they encouraged them to play, in defiance of the union.
"It's a tough position for them,' said Orioles manager Phil Regan. "I think it's going to get worse for them."
The Orioles' minor-leaguers are perhaps the most fortunate of all. As Triple-A pitcher Frank Seminara pointed out, "Our owner [Peter Angelos] has taken pressure off all of us by refusing to play in replacement games."
In addition, Angelos and manager Regan have both stated that minor-leaguers can choose not to play in games against other minor-leaguers. Robertson said, "The other day, Roland -- is it Hemond? -- Roland Hemond told us to just go out and play, like we always do."
Just like other minor-leaguers, however, the Orioles' minor-leaguers apparently will still have to make a decision. Before each game against another minor-league club, Regan will post a roster of those expected to play. If they would prefer to skip the games, they will be expected to tell Regan beforehand.
Either way, they will have to state their position. Robertson, who is learning how to catch in order to improve his chances of making it to the big leagues as a utility man, says he won't play. His brother Andre played shortstop in the majors for the New York Yankees, and Robertson said he thinks he himself will still get to the big leagues.
"I don't want to cross the union," Robertson said.
But Robertson and other Orioles minor-leaguers admitted they have little information to base their decision on. Catcher Mike Gargiulo, 20, a Single-A player who could conceivably be pushed up if players above him decline to participate, said he really didn't "know about the strike.
"I don't really follow it that much. I don't really understand a lot of it, like what each side wants. . . . I don't really know what they're fighting for."
The union has scheduled a meeting in Tampa for Monday, and several players say they plan to attend. Seminara said, "I'm going to ask questions and make comments and give my opinion.'
But few players were as confident as Seminara, who has pitched in the big leagues with the Padres and Mets and participated in union meetings before. Two Orioles minor-leaguers declined to be interviewed yesterday, saying they didn't want their views on the labor situation to become public record.
One said, "I don't want to get involved with that."
At this point, they really don't have a choice.
OPENING DAY DEADLINE
In the latest in a series of baseball deadlines, management's lead negotiator, John Harrington, said yesterday that there must be a labor deal by March 5 to have striking major-leaguers on the field by Opening Day.
Talks resume Monday -- the 200th day of the strike.