In 1995, baseball's rites of spring are played in a minor key Two Dreams On Hold

March 01, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

West Palm Beach, Fla. -- About two weeks from now, the Minnesota Twins are scheduled to play an exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves at their spring training stadium here.

Maybe Brian Kowitz will step up to the plate, plant his feet and fix his eyes on the pitcher. And maybe he will see Brian Bark staring back at him.

From Little League to minor league, the two young Baltimoreans have long shared ball fields, either as teammates or opponents, but this particular face-off would have had special significance: Both Brians are on the cusp of making that magical leap into the big leagues. This spring could have been their spring.

That they may not meet on the field of Municipal Stadium is, in a nutshell, the story of baseball in this spring of our discontent. While millionaire major league players continue their strike against millionaire team owners, it is the minor leaguers who have been taken hostage.

They have worked and sweated their way up through the lowest ranks of pro baseball, the farm teams in the Scrantons and Elmiras and Johnson Cities of America. They've lived three or four to an apartment, scrimped on the per-diem meal money that supplements wages in the high four figures or the low five. But they've gotten through most of that -- as well as the injuries and other whims of fate that can stop careers dead. At this juncture, making the big leagues is still a dream, but an entirely achievable one.

That's where both Brians were. Until the strike. Brian Kowitz had moved onto the Minnesota Twins' 40-man roster as an outfielder. Brian Bark was considered a real contender, a minor leaguer still, but a pitcher with great promise for the Atlanta Braves.

The strike hasn't crippled either of them, of course. Once it's settled, they could be back on track at a moment's notice. They're ready, able and willing to say "How high?" when the major leagues say, "Jump."

What's harder to do is wait. Or to decide where you stand.

Brian Kowitz is waiting in Owings Mills, where both players live in the off-season, for an end to this unending strike. Brian Bark is waiting here, a minor league middle man in the great tug of war that has become baseball.

So many little boys dream of getting this far, of playing this game that those who did get this far are now refusing to play. Two of those boys were born in Baltimore, within about a year of each other, and raised in the northwest suburbs. One is even the son of a former professional ballplayer.

Brian Bark, 26, was brought up "the major league way," he says, taking a break between spring training drills in the morning and his own workout in the gym in the afternoon. He's vying for a spot on one of the best pitching staffs in the majors.

His father, Jerry, 49, was a pitcher in the Mets organization, leaving after four years in 1968. He's now a sales manager at a Baltimore advertising company. Watching from afar the son, he says maybe only half-jokingly, he played ball with since the baby could sit up.

Brian Bark's baseball memories don't go back quite that far, but he does recall playing all the time as a kid, starting in Little League and all through school. He played on the Randallstown High School team that won the state championship in 1985.

"He had ability far beyond my level, at any stage. But he also had a better teacher," Jerry Bark says. "He was always an achiever, even as a young boy. He always wanted to be No. 1."

Mr. Bark says his only baseball goal for his son was that he play college ball. It would be a good way to finance an education, thought Jerry Bark, who went to City College and the University of Maryland.

Dozens of colleges sought Brian Bark, and he settled on North Carolina State. There, he was an all-conference player four years in a row.

He loved playing baseball so much that he spent his youth as both an outfielder and a pitcher to increase his playing time. "I just love baseball. I love the game, I love to play it," he says. He never dreamed he'd have to consider not playing, to appease the players' union to which he aspires to belong and avoid being labeled a "scab."

Joining the minors

His hometown team, the Orioles, drafted him in his junior year, but Brian didn't think it was a very good offer. He stayed in college. The following year, 1990, the Braves drafted him in the 11th round.

He signed, and was sent to Pulaski, Va., for rookie ball. There he found Brian Kowitz.

The two had played against each other in summer leagues, "and we knew of each other a long time before we actually met," says Mr. Kowitz, who is a year younger. He thinks they actually got to know one another when he was 15 and his coach happened to be the other Brian's father.

Mr. Kowitz also played on his high school team, Boys Latin, and went to Clemson, which, like the other Brian's N.C. State, is in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They played against one another, and Brian Kowitz racked up awards as well, being named ACC player of the year when he was a junior.

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