Baseball's Sorry Exhibition

March 03, 1995|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Sun Columnist

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Imagine sitting down to dinner in a four-star French restaurant and having to settle for a plate of undercooked hot dogs and beans.

Imagine going to hear one of the world's great symphony orchestras in concert and settling for listening to them play "These Boots are Made for Walkin' " instead of Mozart.

Imagine going to see the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers play a ballgame in which the most accomplished player is a part-time coach at Montclair State University.

Actually, you don't have to imagine that last one. It happened here yesterday.

Thanks to what baseball people commonly refer to as the labor "situation," the sport's two most historic franchises opened their 1995 exhibition season with a game featuring players who were, ah, not quite up to the usual standard.

More fans than reporters, but not too many more, showed up to watch on a sunny, breezy afternoon. Some 1,300 tickets were sold at reduced prices, but at least 7,500 seats in the 8,400-seat ballpark were empty.

"Disappointed at the crowd?" a reporter asked Yankees manager Buck Showalter.

"No," he said. "I certainly respect the fans' decision not to come."

There was utter silence in the house when the public address announcer ran down the lineups before the game. The few fans who did come, most of whom seemed to be younger than 12 or older than 65, needed a lot more than a scorecard this time. They needed to see five-minute video biographies before they would know these players.

Batting first for the Yankees was a substitute teacher who last played for a team called the Moonachie Braves in a New Jersey semipro league. Batting second, a part-time sheriff from Hartford, Conn. Batting third, a first baseman who has spent the past five years in Single-A ball. Batting cleanup, a 31-year-old designated hitter who hadn't played pro ball since 1986. Batting sixth, a social worker from Lexington, Ky. Batting ninth, a high school teacher and real estate appraiser from Chicago.

Say hello to your New York Yankees!

From Ruth to DiMaggio to Mantle to Reggie to Mattingly to . . . the immortal Frank Eufemia, a 35-year-old right-hander who threw the first pitch of the year for the Yankees -- his first major-league pitch since the early days of Ronald Reagan's second term as president.

But hey, Eufemia qualifies as a Cy Young candidate here in Florida's newest theme park, Replacement World. So what if he has retired twice? (He was out of baseball from 1986 to 1991, pitched in 11 games in 1992, then disappeared again.) So what if he is primarily a coach at Montclair State? He won four games in the bigs. He's a replacement hombre.

The Dodgers weren't quite as comedic. They're going with a team composed almost entirely of real players in their minor-league system, some of them legitimate prospects such as third baseman Mike Busch, who was on the 40-man roster last spring, and outfielder Chris Latham, who stole 61 bases in the low minors last year.

"I'm not going to be embarrassed putting these guys out there," Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda said. "They're good, young ballplayers. They're not here trying to take away someone's job. They're just trying to impress the right people and get to the majors one day. And a few of them will."

Dodgers general manager Fred Claire stood on the field before the game and announced proudly that he had signed no replacements, that every player in a Dodgers uniform was legitimate. He was stretching that truth considerably in the case of Miguel Alicia, a 35-year-old pitcher who has spent the past five years in the Mexican League, and Rafael Montalvo, whose major-league career consists of one inning pitched in 1985. Both signed with the Dodgers in January and pitched yesterday. Just a guess, but they probably wouldn't be here if not for the "situation."

Still, the Dodgers' roster was noticeably less pockmarked by truckers, teachers, fat guys and other Replacement World staples. Not that the Dodgers are any paragon of virtue in this thing. They basically bribed their minor-leaguers into playing in the exhibition season, offering them a $5,000 bonus, a guaranteed job for all of the 1995 season and a promise of no pay cut for as long as they're in the organization.

The reason for the bribes? In the eyes of the Major League Baseball Players Association, any minor-leaguer who plays in an exhibition game is a strikebreaker.

Many of the minor-leaguers are worried about the impact that playing in these games will have on their careers -- "the clubhouse is real quiet today," Busch said -- and thought long and hard before showing up yesterday. But they did. Money talks.

"I knew we were in trouble when I saw who they were using," Showalter said.

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