Skip to main content
Original Issue

Swing Shift

Anxious baseball players are trying to resolve career crises brought on by the strike

Like a plague, the major league baseball strike has infected everyone with an interest in the game, even that most indomitable of spirits, Baltimore Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. He is the big leaguer whose loss—the end of his consecutive-game streak—would be most heartbreaking should the dispute between owners and players disrupt the start of the 1995 season. Normally impervious to distraction, robotic in efficiency and analysis, an iron man with an iron will, Ripken last week admitted that the work stoppage, which began on Aug. 12, is wearing on him, too.

For Ripken, opening day of the baseball season each year is Jan. 1, the first day of his intense preparation for the upcoming campaign. But so far this year, he says, "it hasn't been the same. The motivation has been down." While his regimented workout schedule is more maniacal than ever, he says, "You know it's anything but normal. You put in the sweat, make the commitment—I do it because I love doing it—but at the end of the day you wonder, Am I doing it for the same...the same...I can't even think of the word."

Ripken isn't the only major leaguer at a loss to explain what looms in the weeks, perhaps months, to come. With owners going ahead with their plan to open spring training—and, in all likelihood, the regular season—with replacement players, every big leaguer has been affected, and many minor leaguers may soon be as well. As the cases of Ripken and five others interviewed by SI indicate, some players are facing tough career decisions.

Ripken, for one, has tried hard to keep the labor turmoil from penetrating his zone of concentration. On Aug. 19, a week after the strike began, he vowed to be better prepared than any other player in the event the dispute was settled quickly. Every day for almost a month Ripken repaired to his gymnasium at his home in Reisterstown, Md., for a workout designed to keep all facets of his game sharp. He hit for 30 minutes in the batting cage; practiced making the double play; tagged out imaginary runners, banging his glove against the floor to toughen his hands; angled the pitching machine so it fired one-hop shots at him; rigged his oscillating tennis-ball machine to fire a ground ball every 11 seconds, first to his backhand, then to his glove hand; took a bucket of baseballs out to his yard and played long toss alone; put on his spikes and sprinted, so he wouldn't lose the feeling of running on grass. Then, on Sept. 14, the season was canceled.

He picked up the routine again on Jan. 1, even though there was no negotiated settlement in sight. Spring training is scheduled to open on Feb. 22 for players other than pitchers and catchers, but Ripken says that if the strike is still on, he will remain loyal to the union and not report to camp or play in replacement games. Oriole owner Peter Angelos states adamantly that he will not field a replacement team, partly because Ripken's consecutive-game streak of 2,009—122 short of Lou Gehrig's record—might then be jeopardized. It was announced last week that American League president Gene Budig will have the authority to decide whether replacement games without Ripken would constitute an end to his streak.

At 34, Ripken is perhaps the major leaguer most respected by his peers, as much for his character and professionalism as for his playing skills and the streak. He's so much the player's player that some big leaguers have said he should be allowed to cross the picket line without retribution in order to keep his amazing feat alive.

"It's important what is said about you by the players you play with and against," Ripken says. "It makes me feel good to hear that, but [preserving the streak] is not as big a deal as everyone thinks it is." Like most great players Ripken thrives on competition. "With the lesser caliber of play, playing [in replacement games] wouldn't mean anything to me," Ripken says. "For me, [the decision] is real easy. If no major league baseball is being played, I can't be playing."

From Twin to Gaijin

Japan used to be a haven for washed-up major leaguers and younger U.S. players seeking a bigger paycheck or the opportunity to showcase their talent. Until now no big leaguer at the top of his game has made the move to Japan, but two weeks ago outfielder Shane Mack, a lifetime .299 hitter in seven seasons with the San Diego Padres and the Minnesota Twins, signed a two-year, $8.1 million contract with the Yomiuri Giants, largely because major league owners imposed a salary cap on Dec. 23 and the '95 season is in peril.

Mack hit .333 with the Twins last year, and, at 31, he is clearly at the top of his game. "In an ideal situation, I would be playing for someone here," says Mack, who made $3.2 million last year, became a free agent after the season and was offered a two-year, $6.6 million deal by Minnesota last month. But before Mack and the Twins could negotiate further, a contract moratorium was imposed by the players' union to counter the salary cap implemented by the owners. To be safe, Mack opted for the Far East.

In fact, Mack first came to the attention of the Japanese when he set a national high school record with 16 straight hits for Gahr High in Cerritos, Calif., a feat chronicled by several Japanese reporters. The contacts he made then were renewed in college, when Mack's UCLA team played a Japanese university team. "I've always wanted to go to Japan," he says. "I thought it would come later in my career."

It's not an encouraging sign for Major League Baseball when players in their prime leave for Japan, and Mack isn't the only U.S. star headed there at least partly because of the strike. On Dec. 20, Julio Franco, 33, who hit .319 with 20 homers and 98 RBIs for the Chicago White Sox last season, signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Chiba Lotte Marines.

"No one has ever gone over there in his prime," says Mack. "Julio and I are the highest-paid players ever to go over there. Maybe we'll set a trend. Maybe Japan will change the rule so you can have more than three [foreign players] on a team."

Mack says he'll miss playing in the majors, but he isn't ruling out a return someday. "[Twin outfielder] Kirby Puckett told me, 'I'm going to miss you, but you got a better deal,' " Mack says. "We don't know if there's going to be baseball this year."

The Bitter End?

Soon to be 38, pitcher Dave Stewart hopes to squeeze one more season out of his career, especially since last year ended so terribly for him—with a 7-8 record and a 5.87 ERA for the Toronto Blue Jays, not to mention the strike. That's no way to end a career, especially for a four-time 20-game winner who also has an 8-0 record in league championship series play and was the 1989 World Series MVP while with the Oakland Athletics. "I came to the big leagues in a strike year [1981], and I worked in a nuts-and-bolts factory during [that walkout], but I didn't think my career would end during a strike," Stewart says.

How sad that would be for Stewart and for such other aging veterans as Andre Dawson, Dennis Eckersley, Bob Welch and Dave Winfield. "This is my last year, regardless," says Stewart. "I can't take a year off and expect to be able to play in '96. It's important for me to have something to look forward to, to get the fire burning, to get the edge. With the way the game is headed, with so much up in the air, it's harder to find that edge. With each day of indecision, it sours me more on the game. It's ugly."

But before Stewart has to concern himself with finding the edge, he has to find a team. He says six clubs, including the Blue Jays, have expressed an interest in signing him, and a Japanese team wants him too. In his dreams Stewart would exit baseball after winning one more postseason game. "That would be beautiful, man," he says. "But if I don't play this year, it will be another sacrifice made by a veteran player to keep the players' association together. That's what we're all about. That's why I am where I am. I can't look back with regrets. The only regret is that the game has gotten crazy in the latter years of my career.

"I played 15 years. At least I can say I played. I'm not working in a nuts-and-bolts factory now."

The Journeyman's Plight

Tim Fortugno has pitched for 15 teams in six major league organizations, and for five more teams in Mexico and Venezuela. Once, in 1989, the Milwaukee Brewers acquired him (for their Double A affiliate) from the independent Reno Silver Sox in exchange for $2,500 and 12 dozen baseballs. "It was a joke," Fortugno says. "I thought, I'm turning into a joke."

Fortugno had the last laugh last May, when, at 32, he was called up by the Cincinnati Reds and pitched fairly well (1-0, 4.20 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 30 innings) in middle relief for the next three months. Finally, it appeared, he had found a home, a high-paying job (he was paid at the 1994 major league minimum rate, $109,000 a year) and maybe some security.

But in the off-season the Reds signed free-agent pitchers Xavier Hernandez, Jack Morris and Pete Smith, among others, and to make room for Morris on the 40-man roster, Cincinnati designated Fortugno for reassignment. But before he wound up back in the Reds' farm system, Fortugno was snatched off the waiver wire by the White Sox. "My resume might have 28 teams on it before my career is over," Fortugno says, laughing.

The strike has sent his career into a tailspin again. How can he reconcile winning a job with a new team in spring training if he has to cross a picket line to do it?

"This is the most unusual situation I've ever been in," Fortugno says. "The only thing that parallels it was when I was released four times [in three countries] between the spring of 1993 and the spring of 1994. If there was ever a time to look in the mirror and see if you're chasing false dreams, that was it."

But he has never had to make a decision like the one he might face next month. "It's a decision you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy," he says of the prospect of going against the union. "If there ever was a Catch-22 situation, I'm in it now. I'm concerned, but the Bible says you should choose one side or the other. God says you shouldn't be lukewarm. So, for now, I'm on the players' team."

While he has relied on his faith to get through this latest crisis, Fortugno has also been fortified by the bizarre developments in his playing career. "It has made me as strong as a rock," he says. "I'm almost impenetrable. I've been in so many valleys, when I didn't think it would get any worse, so I'm prepared for the valley that a lot of other guys and I are going to go through."

Can he laugh about this? "No," he says, "but my curiosity is certainly at its peak."

The Cant-Miss Kid

At 6'7" and 227 pounds, Billy Ashley crushed Triple A pitching the last two seasons, his numbers last year including a .345 average, 37 home runs and 105 RBIs in 107 games for Albuquerque. The 24-year-old Ashley is supposed to be the player to watch, the Los Angeles Dodgers' starting leftfielder when spring training opens this season. "It's my time," says Ashley. "I thought it was my time last year, but I didn't get the opportunity."

Now, who knows when Ashley's time will finally come? It won't be before the strike is settled, that's for sure. "I don't care if I go broke or into the poorhouse," he says. "I'm not going to go against my teammates or my union."

The Dodgers can't even send Ashley back to Triple A to stay sharp this season, because he is out of minor league options. So if the strike isn't settled soon, he will go back to his mother's home in Arizona to figure out what to do next. He says he might become a personal trainer or go to work for a friend who owns batting cages in Chicago.

A number of other young players hope to break through to the majors in 1995—Houston Astro outfielder Brian Hunter, Atlanta Brave infielder Chipper Jones and Boston Red Sox pitcher Frankie Rodriguez, to name a few—but even the owners realize that enticing them to cross a picket line would do the players' careers more harm than good in the long run.

"If I was older, I might think differently, but I have many years left to play," says Ashley. "My mom and dad are mad. They've been so looking forward to me having a full-time [major league] job. But they know that what I'm doing now is the right thing to do. Still, sometimes I wonder, Why did this have to happen this year?"

Crash Davis

Thirty-one-year-old outfielder Joe Mikulik has played 11 years in the minor leagues and has batted 3,634 times, with a .274 average, but he has yet to accomplish what he has aspired to for as long as he can remember—playing in a big league game. Any day now the Cleveland Indians might give Mikulik, a player-coach with the Tribe's Canton-Akron Double A affiliate, that a replacement player.

While Mikulik says he hasn't decided what he will do if he's asked—and the Indians say he will get a call—he's leaning toward crossing the picket line. "Friends and family say, 'You got to do it,' " Mikulik says. "After 11 years in the minor leagues, I want something to show for that. Right now, I've got nothing to show for it. There's no pension in the minor leagues, there's nothing. I drive a Ford Escort. I can barely afford to live in a trailer. But if I cross the line, will they hold it against me? I lie awake at night thinking, Shoot, go for it. Then I pull back the reins."

Mikulik has never made more than $25,000 in a season playing baseball. "If I ever made $30,000, I'd be living high on the hog," he says. As a replacement player he could make $115,000, plus $10,000 in signing and Opening Day roster bonuses. "I've got to have something to fall back on—I've got zero," he says. "What's a man to do? No one is taking care of me. If I cross, and I open an eye or two, maybe I could stay in the majors as a pinch hitter. I'm always looking for a chance. This might be it."

Mikulik, his wife, Kathy, and their two children, Susan, 8, and Dawson, 22 months, have lived for the last few off-seasons with Kathy's parents in Candler, N.C. While Kathy works as a manager at a clothing store, Joe plays Mr. Mom. They are awaiting delivery of a new house trailer, which Mikulik helped pay for by playing last year in Mexico, where he earned $17,000 after being released by the Astro organization.

It won't be long before he will have to report to spring training—either for his 12th season as a minor leaguer or as a major league replacement player. "If I cross, somebody is going to hold it against me, and it's probably going to be someone making a million dollars," Mikulik says. "Where were those guys when I needed to pay the rent? Where were they when I needed a gallon of gas in the tank? I haven't seen anything from those guys. I always said, If I ever get to the big leagues, it'll be a great story."



Ripken, in his gym, worries more about staying motivated to work out than about his run at Gehrig.



[See caption above.]



Having signed a deal with Yomiuri, Mack gets a taste of Japan—in Pasadena.



At 38, Stewart wants one more shot at closing out his career as a winner.



Just when Fortugno (right) felt at home in Cincy, he wound up with the White Sox.



Mikulik, with son, Dawson, will put his family first if asked to be a replacement.



Hot prospect Ashley won't be all washed up, even if he can't play this year.