When President Barack Obama announced Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court nominee in 2009, he said, "Some say Judge Sotomayor saved baseball." At the very least, in 1995 she had saved baseball from the ultimate embarrassment: having replacement players take part in actual major league games. Using replacements in spring training, while the major league players union was in the midst of a walkout, was temerarious enough. Depending on your point of view, the owners' decision to field impostor teams in Arizona and Florida was a necessary bluff, a travesty or an unintentionally comedic break from the hostilities of a 232-day labor war. In fact, it was all of that and then some.
On Jan. 13, 1995, baseball's executive council voted to approve the use of replacement players while the real major leaguers were on strike, a dark period that began when the union walked out the previous August and included the cancellation of the '94 World Series. "We are committed to playing the 1995 season and will do so with the best players willing to play," acting commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
What happened over the next 11 weeks now reads like the script to a movie that couldn't possibly be based on real events. The Angels found a 33-year-old catcher at Home Depot. The Mets' second baseman was a landscaper from Alabama named Bubba who had not played ball in five years. The Tigers signed a 35-year-old garbage truck driver who had last pitched in the big leagues in 1989. You half expected to see Walter Matthau in the dugout and Tatum O'Neal on the mound.
The Cardinals opened camp with a staggering 111 players. The Orioles refused to field a team at all. The owners were prepared to begin the regular season with no team in Toronto (Ontario labor law banned the use of replacement workers, forcing the Blue Jays to plan for regular-season games at their Dunedin, Fla., training site), no team in Baltimore, and a motley collection of car salesmen, truck drivers, janitors, police officers, teachers and veritable fantasy league campers looking for their one—or, in the many cases of washed-up former pros, second, third or fourth—shot at major league glory.
Sotomayor, then a federal district court judge in Manhattan, effectively ended this parallel baseball universe by issuing an injunction against the owners on March 31, 1995, two days before the Mets and the Marlins were to play the Sunday-night regular-season opener. The timing, she wrote, was "important to ensure that the symbolic value of that day is not tainted by an unfair labor practice."
Selig's term as commissioner came to an official end last month, and history will record that he oversaw unprecedented growth in the game. Buoyed by 20 years of labor peace, the sport's revenues grew from $1.4 billion in 1995 to $9 billion last year—and to appreciate that growth, you have to understand where baseball stood when camps opened in '95. Players distrusted the owners. Owners fought with one another. And wedged between them were hundreds of replacement players like Braves pitcher Dave Shotkoski, a 30-year-old supervisor at a Coca-Cola plant outside of Chicago and a former minor league journeyman who had been out of the game for three years. Shotkoski left his wife and eight-month-old girl at home in North Aurora, Ill., for one more chance at the major leagues.
The owners were staging a false spring. But the effects of it were very real. Replacement baseball turned out so badly that owners never again sought a salary cap from the players; baseball remains the only major pro sport without one. Replacement baseball also altered the careers of many men, including Sparky Anderson, Joe Torre, Michael Jordan and, most tragically of all, Dave Shotkoski.
THE BEST players willing."
After Selig promised in January 1995 that the game would go on, general managers immediately went into a four-week scramble to find players to fill their spring rosters. Accurately anticipating the poststrike animosity the real major leaguers would harbor toward replacements, the general managers avoided asking better prospects who were not yet union members to sign up. So they turned over every rock, calling has-beens and never-weres with such frantic desperation that one GM, upon finding that the telephone number of a former player he called belonged to someone else—it turned out to be a sportswriter—asked the man on the other end of the line, "Well, how about you? Can you play?"
Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, then 35, was one of the first former big leaguers to sign up. Boyd, who pitched 10 seasons in the majors and had been kicking around independent ball for three years, signed with the White Sox. He thought baseball had slammed the door in his face after the 1991 season—he couldn't get a job after he posted a 4.59 ERA in 31 starts with Montreal and Texas—and now a labor dispute had opened it again.
Pitcher Doug Sisk, 37, rejoined the Mets after three years out of the game, only to hurt his arm the first time he threw off a mound. Infielder Lenny Randle was 46 years old and had been out of the majors for 12 years when he joined the Angels, though he had been playing in Italy. He hit .333 in 24 spring at bats before he was cut.
Pedro Borbon, who was so old he was once a teammate of Hoyt Wilhelm, returned to the Reds. He was 48 years old, 45 pounds overweight and had not pitched in the big leagues since 1980, prompting Pirates manager Jim Leyland to call the righthander's return "a disgrace." To re-comply with Cincinnati's policy against facial hair, Borbon had to shave the mustache he had worn for 15 years. Borbon, who was raising birds in Texas, later sent two parrots to Cincinnati manager Davey Johnson. One of the birds died of a respiratory infection. Johnson's wife, Susan, soon contracted a respiratory infection herself.
Jeff Stone, 34 and out of baseball for four years, left a job on the loading dock of a Missouri steel mill to return to the Phillies. Once considered something of a phenom, the outfielder became better known for his malaprops and unintended humor, like the time he left a new television set in Venezuela, where he had been playing winter ball, because, he complained, "it only gets Spanish stations." When he became a replacement, Stone reasoned, "My baseball days are over, so it wasn't like I was going to be taking anyone's job. I look at this like a vacation."
Terry Blocker, 35, signed with the Braves after working as a cable-TV technician in 1994, moving on from baseball after spending his final four seasons in the Mexican League. The outfielder, also a former Pentecostal deacon, had played the last of his 110 big league games in '89.
The Tigers signed Chris Brown, 33, an infielder who had been out of the game for five years and who had gained such infamy for his malingering that he was known as Downtime Brown. He once sat out a game because he slept on his eye wrong. Brown claimed to be a new man in 1995, but it took until only the third game of the exhibition season for Downtime to need some downtime. He told the team he couldn't play due to a sore back, then sat out for a week, whereupon Detroit traded him to the Reds for a player to be named. "We signed Chris because we wanted to see if he could still play," Tigers interim manager Tom Runnells said. "But, you know, it's really hard to see anything when he's not available."
Runnells served as Detroit's manager that spring because Anderson, the future Hall of Famer, refused to manage replacement players. The Tigers' front office, seething, considered it an unpaid leave. Anderson came back when the real major leaguers returned, but his relationship with the club continued to erode. Anderson quit after the 1995 season. He was only 61 and said he wanted to manage again if the right situation came along. He never managed another day in the big leagues, sparking speculation that his refusal to work with the replacement Tigers caused him to be blackballed. Anderson, though, never regretted his decision. In his '98 memoir written with Dan Ewald, Anderson wrote, "Strange, but it was the proudest moment of my career."
Other managers showed up for work but didn't like it. Upon watching the 111 Cardinals he inherited begin their inaugural workout lap, Torre joked that the group resembled the thick pack of runners at the start of the New York City Marathon. Torre had enjoyed three straight winning seasons with St. Louis from 1991 to '93, but the team was 53--61 when the strike hit in '94. Torre, a staunch union rep in the players' association's early years, didn't share the same enthusiasm for replacement ball as did Anheuser-Busch, which owned the Cardinals, and he was fired just 47 games after the strike ended, with a 20--27 record. The experience so soured Torre that he figured he never would manage again.
MICHAEL JORDAN was so excited for the 1995 baseball season that he showed up a week early in February for the White Sox' minor league camp. The previous year, at age 31, Jordan hit .202 for the Double A Birmingham Barons despite not having played baseball since high school. He stole 30 bases and drove in 51 runs. The former NBA star may not have been a major league prospect, but his love for the game, work ethic and improvement gave a modest authenticity to his second career.
Jordan, however, did not want to cross the picket line or be used as leverage by the owners as an exhibition drawing card. On the first official day of workouts, Feb. 18, Jordan told reporters in Sarasota, Fla., "I'm not here to break down what the players are trying to achieve." On March 2, Jordan stuffed his gear into a Chicago Bulls duffel bag and left camp. On March 10 he officially announced his retirement from baseball—due entirely to the strike. Nine days later Jordan scored 19 points for the Bulls against Indiana.
IF YOU reached the voice mail of Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina during replacement ball, this is what you heard: "Hello, and welcome to the replacement baseball season. If you are having trouble reaching your trash collector, accountant or local contractor, you may want to try Florida or Arizona. However, if you wish to leave a message, please do so at this time, and I'll be sure to tell you when the real guys are going back to work."
The major leaguers made it clear they were angry at the players they called scabs. Angels pitcher Mark Langston said they should stay as far as possible from baseball once the strike was settled. Mets pitcher John Franco promised to drill any of them with a pitch if he faced one.
Many of the replacement players crossed the picket line for the money, and because the dream of being a major leaguer still flickered inside them. Replacement players received a $5,000 signing bonus, at least $80 a day in expense money, a $5,000 bonus if they made an Opening Day roster and at least a prorated $115,000 salary for the regular season.
That was very good money to many of them. The Reds signed an outfielder named Motorboat Jones, who had played independent ball in 1994 after spending seven years in the Reds' organization, mostly in Class A and below. Jones had been mopping floors in Gadsden, Ala., for $120 a week. His brother, Speedboat Jones, a lefthanded pitcher who spent seven years in the minors with the Blue Jays and the Mariners, signed with Toronto. When the Jays faced the Reds in an exhibition game, the two brothers squared off for one historic plate appearance: Speedboat vs. Motorboat. Motorboat walked.
Among the most recognizable names of the replacement spring were Jim Boudreau, Pete Rose Jr. and Ted Williams. Boudreau, 35, the son of Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau, gave up two runs in one inning for Pittsburgh in his first professional appearance since 1986, when he was in Double A. Cracked Pittsburgh broadcaster Steve Blass, "He should have been better pitching on 3,195 days rest."
Rose, wearing number 14 for the White Sox, played in replacement exhibition games but said he would not play in the regular season, then said he would play regular-season games because the major leaguers already considered him a strikebreaker. Referring to himself in the third person, the son of the alltime hit leader said, "This is about Pete Rose Jr. going out and making himself a better baseball player."
The replacement Ted Williams—no relation to the Hall of Fame slugger—was a minor league journeyman who, because of his speed, was known as The Splendid Sprinter. Pirates GM Cam Bonifay traded him to Kansas City for "future considerations," prompting reporters to ask Bonifay if he forever would be known as the man who traded Ted Williams. Said Bonifay, "If I'm asked that one more time...."
In a perfect coincidence that typified the facsimile of major league baseball that was replacement ball, in the same game Boudreau pitched to Rose and was pinch-hit for by Williams.
SELIG'S "BEST PLAYERS WILLING" decree made no promises about the quality of play—and it was awful. The Mets started the exhibition season 0--9, a stretch in which they batted .191, were no-hit and didn't hit a home run until the last game of the streak. Their 10th game was tied 0--0 against Kansas City after eight innings; the Mets won in the ninth after the deciding run reached base on a dropped third strike. The team batting average dropped to .182. The attendance at Baseball City Stadium in Haines City, Fla., was 743.
The replacement Yankees unofficially helped open Coors Field in Denver with a two-game exhibition series in late March. In three days at the world's greatest hitters' park, they did not hit a home run—and that included batting practice.
Johnson, the Reds' manager, called the level of play "a travesty," comparing it to Class A independent ball. Mariners manager Lou Piniella, after watching his players pack on weight from the generous clubhouse spread, ordered the cheese, potato chips, ice cream and other snacks off limits. After a 13--0 loss, Piniella complained about the noticeable lack of velocity of his pitchers. "Some of [the pitches] were under the radar gun," he said. "You know if you fly low enough, you can't be picked up [by radar]."
Leyland, preparing for the possibility that he would have to start the regular season with his over-the-hill gang, planned to use a two-platoon system to take advantage of the 32-man roster MLB was allowing (with only 25 players designated as active each day)—one day on and one day off. Explained the Pirates' manager, "We have to see who we can get out of the whirlpool and onto the field."
EARLY IN the evening of March 24, Dave Shotkoski left his hotel in West Palm Beach, Fla., for his usual after-dinner walk. Shotkoski had not pitched in professional baseball since 1991, the last of the six minor league seasons he spent toiling in seven cities for the Braves, Athletics and Angels. He was done at age 26, with a career record of 18--24 and a 5.07 ERA. But when Atlanta, his original organization, invited him back, Shotkoski left his supervisor job at Coca-Cola and reported to the Braves' camp in West Palm Beach. Inside his locker he hung a picture of his wife, Felicia, and baby daughter, Alexis. While future Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were on strike, Shotkoski set about earning a spot on manager Bobby Cox's pitching staff. Shotkoski had told Felicia this was "the best spring training" he ever enjoyed. Felicia knew her husband was a kid at heart, one who never let go of a seven-year-old's dream.
Shotkoski had taken to these regular evening walks as a way to fight the boredom that came from missing his family and from an ankle injury that had limited him to one inning in exhibition games. These being replacement players, not millionaire major leaguers, Shotkoski and the other replacements were staying at a Ramada Inn, not far from a dangerous section of town.
Sometime before 6:40 p.m., about 500 yards from the hotel, a man rode up to Shotkoski on a yellow bicycle, pulled out a .22-caliber revolver and aimed it at him. West Palm Beach police said there was "a brief encounter" with no signs of a struggle. Three shots rang out. The assailant rode off on his bike. Shotkoski, wounded, ran for about a hundred yards before he collapsed on a sidewalk near an office building. There Dave Shotkoski died from multiple gunshot wounds.
TERRY BLOCKER, the former Pentecostal deacon, saw a fellow family man in his teammate Shotkoski. He made a mental note that he would find the time to talk to Shotkoski about faith.
Camp had not gone well for Blocker. His knee ached, and it was clear the skills he flashed at Tennessee State in 1981, when the Mets took him with the fourth pick of the draft, were long gone. Blocker had hit .341 in his first year in pro ball, and the next year joined Darryl Strawberry and Billy Beane in the starting outfield of the Double A Jackson Mets. Strawberry would go on to earn $31 million in the major leagues, and Beane would gain fame as the general manager of the Athletics. Stardom never visited Blocker. He spent parts of three big league seasons with Atlanta and the Mets, batting .205, and reached the end of his nondescript playing days with the replacement Braves of '95.
On the night of March 24, shortly after he heard about Shotkoski's death, Blocker ventured into Pleasant City, one of West Palm Beach's worst neighborhoods, about two miles from the Ramada Inn. Blocker knew West Palm well, having trained there with the Braves in 1988 and '89. He remembered giving $100 back then to a local man down on his luck. He contacted the man and asked for his help in finding Shotkoski's killer.
Starting at 10 that night, and lasting for hours, Blocker and the man hung out on street corners in Pleasant City. Someone threatened to steal Blocker's gold watch and Triple A championship ring. Another man, calling himself Dr. Dre after the well-known rapper, blew crack smoke into Blocker's face and challenged him to a fight. Blocker had lived on the wild side himself as a youngster, sometimes carrying a gun while growing up in Columbia, S.C. He had reformed his life, though, and as he entered Pleasant City, he maintained what he would admit later was a strange sense of calm. He learned nothing, however.
The next day Blocker went back into Pleasant City, this time under the pretext of doing his laundry. He ran into Dr. Dre again. They talked, and Blocker asked him to keep an ear out for information.
At 4:30 the next morning, Dr. Dre called Blocker's friend in Pleasant City. He had heard something. A man with the street name Thousand was bragging that he had killed a Braves pitcher.
Blocker took the tip to the West Palm Beach police. They were well acquainted with Thousand, a 30-year-old man named Neal Douglas Evans who had 13 previous arrests involving drugs, robbery and firearms. The police had been looking for Evans since August, when he had skipped a meeting with his parole officer.
Later, the police realized that they had Evans in custody twice in the last five months and didn't know it. Evans had been arrested the previous November on a trespassing charge and again on Feb. 24 for selling fake cocaine. In each case he had told police his name was Michael Evans, and the police booked him that way—creating an entirely separate identity and criminal database—and released him. Police didn't link Michael Evans to Neal Douglas Evans until it was too late. The police found Evans the same night Blocker gave them the tip. He was arrested for first-degree murder and robbery.
The police and the Braves had posted a $10,000 reward for information about Shotkoski's killer. Blocker declined the money. Instead, he told police to give the money to Felicia, Shotkoski's widow.
In February 1997, Neal Douglas Evans was sentenced to 27 years in prison for the murder of Dave Shotkoski. On April 3, 2012, Evans was released for good behavior. It was his fifth time in prison and the fifth time he was released early; each of the first four releases was followed by a parole violation. On June 14, 2012—two months out of prison—Evans was arrested for cocaine possession. Florida Department of Corrections records show that he is incarcerated at Okeechobee Correctional Institution with a release date of Jan. 11, 2021.
WITH OPENING DAY just days away, hundreds of players knew they were closer than ever to realizing their dream. It was the ultimate fantasy camp. But one big day stood between them and the majors: Judge Sotomayor had scheduled her hearing for March 31, the Friday before the Mets and the Marlins opened the regular season on Sunday night, with most of the other 26 teams scheduled to begin on Monday.
"The equipment is being packed, Leyland is talking about going north," said Mike Daniel, a Pirates replacement catcher who had spent four years in the minors, nearly the whole time in Class A. "Our hearts are pounding.... We go home every night and put on the TV and hope we still have a job. We're so close, yet ... I think what we would miss most if this is taken away from us isn't the money, but being baseball players again. A lot of us [are] hoping the strike would last forever."
Replacement players such as Joe Aragon, a 33-year-old second baseman for the Twins, openly rooted for the strike to drag on. "Put yourself in our position," he told reporters. "You'd feel the same way. This is a great opportunity, and the longer we're here, the better shape we're going to get in and the better we'll play. We're not a bunch of truck drivers and cappuccino drinkers."
That's when a reporter pointed out to him that—ahem—Aragon had, in fact, been a truck driver.
"I'm a cappuccino drinker too," he admitted with a laugh.
On March 30, the day before Judge Sotomayor would rule, owners dug in their heels. They voted 26--2 to proceed with replacement players in the regular season, with the resolution adding that "those games will count." Only Baltimore and Toronto voted against the measure. No one had any idea what would happen if there were a baseball season and one franchise, Peter Angelos's Orioles, refused to field a team.
Tension filled spring training camps. "These guys," said Pirates coach Rich Donnelly, surveying the replacements, "look like it's a quarter to 12 and they're waiting for the governor to call."
The decision from Sotomayor came quickly. The Cubs and the Brewers were in the second inning of an exhibition game in Mesa, Ariz., when word spread that she had ruled against the owners. Said Milwaukee starting pitcher Mike Farrell, a lefthander who would spend six years in the minors, including four in Triple A, without ever reaching the big leagues, "I can't believe she ruled before I finished my game. I already knew this might be the last one or whatever, but dang, at least give me a little time, you know?"
The major league players, as promised, announced an end to the strike upon the ruling. Still, confusion reigned. No one was sure if the owners' response would be to order a lockout. The owners scheduled a meeting at a Chicago hotel for Sunday, April 2, what should have been Opening Day. The replacements hung around their camps, waiting to hear whether they would be flying to Opening Day or flying home for good.
The owners met for 4½ hours. The hard-line small-market owners, led by the White Sox' Jerry Reinsdorf, wanted the lockout. Led by Angelos and George Steinbrenner of the Yankees, the big-market teams wanted to play ball. No vote was taken, probably because Selig knew the hawks couldn't get the 21 votes needed to support a lockout. The owners simply surrendered, accepting the players' offer to return to work.
Nearly all of the replacement players were released, though a handful, including Kevin Millar, Rick Reed and Brendan Donnelly, remained in affiliated baseball and found their way to the big leagues and—in the cases of those three players—even the World Series. (Such players never were permitted to join the union or share in licensing money, though they did receive union representation in matters such as arbitration or grievances.) The last remaining replacement player in the majors, pitcher Ron Mahay, was cut by the Dodgers in spring training 2011.
Not even Selig could have predicted that April 2, 1995, would be the first day of two decades and counting of labor peace. He emerged from the owners' meeting that day and announced, "Replacement baseball, as of this time, is gone. If you're asking ever, I can't give you that."
The acting commissioner then personally thanked the replacements, who, he said, "interrupted their lives to help us out."
Jeff Stone understood. Both a former Phillie and a faux Phillie, Stone could have his moments of confusion. (He is said to have once politely declined an offer of a shrimp cocktail by replying, "No, thanks. I don't drink.") But he understood what spring training 1995 meant for him and his fellow best players willing. "I guess you could call us pawns if you wanted to," he said as he packed up to leave Phillies camp. "But I had a ball."
IT WASN'T EXACTLY A QUALITY GUARANTEE: AS THE STRIKE DRAGGED ON, THE COMMISSIONER SAID THE 1995 SEASON WOULD BE PLAYED WITH THE "BEST PLAYERS WILLING."
ANDERSON LATER SAID HIS REFUSAL TO MANAGE REPLACEMENTS WAS THE "PROUDEST MOMENT OF MY CAREER."
SHOTKOSKI HAD TOLD HIS WIFE THAT THIS WAS "THE BEST SPRING TRAINING" OF HIS BASEBALL LIFE.
SAID ONE WOULD-BE MAJOR LEAGUER, "A LOT OF US WERE HOPING THE STRIKE WOULD LAST FOREVER."
Photograph by Chuck Solomon for Sports Illustrated
THE SHOW MUST GO ON The owners' insistence on staging spring training made managers like the Cardinals' Torre awkward middle men—and molders of not-ready-for-prime-time talent.
GERALD HERBERT/NY DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
RICARDO FERRO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (REDS)
CASTING CALLS After Selig (left) declared camps open, the Reds (above) and 27 other teams held open tryouts.
BRIAN BAHR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (SELIG)
[See caption above]
CHUCK SOLOMON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BORBON)
FAT CHANCE Borbon (above) tried a gutty comeback; the faux Expos' bobbles (right) were all too real.
RYAN REMIORZ/AP (EXPOS)
[See caption above]
DAVID KADLUBOWSKI FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BLUE JAYS)
CALL TO ARMS As the Blue Jays (left) searched for pitchers, Anderson (above) told reporters he'd return with the real players.
TONY RANZE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (ANDERSON)
[See caption above]
PALM BEACH POST/AP (SHOTKOSKI)
BRAVES BOND Blocker (right) helped hunt down the man who killed Shotkoski (left, with an Angels farm team in 1991) in West Palm Beach.
[See caption above]
COLIN BRALEY/REUTERS (MILLAR)
SPRING FLINGS Stone (left) went home, but Millar (above) was the rare replacement to stay on as a major leaguer.
ERIC GAY/AP (STONE)
[See caption above]