The Players Who Replaced
Much as they try today to forget the moment, the time is forever seared into their minds – March 1995. The time Major League Baseball as we know it almost ceased to exist.
The players were on strike – a walkout that began toward the end of the 1994 season and forced the cancellation of the World Series that fall.
Less than a month before the start of the 1995 season, the players remained on strike, and the owners of the game’s 28 teams threatened to open the season with replacement players.
These replacement parts were comprised almost entirely of players either stuck in the minor leagues or former major leaguers hoping for one final payday.
Exhibition games were played in Florida and Arizona. Normally, these are plodding, forgettable contests, but these games with replacement players redefined the term mindless.
Before one such exhibition game in Viera, Fla., a longtime National League scout watched the wannabe Florida Marlins take batting practice.
“You know who’s the best player on the field right now?” the scout rhetorically asked. “Cookie Rojas.”
At the time, Rojas was a coach with the Marlins. The former All-Star infielder also was 56 years old.
For the last 20 years, the would-be replacements have tried to avoid talking about the spring of 1995.
“Really, don’t mention it, please,” former Harrisburg Senators pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal once said when approached about his comeback attempt as a replacement player with the New York Mets.
In Rosenthal’s case, he was 30 years old then and out of the game for more than a year.
The players still languishing in the minors with seemingly little or no future were given a choice from the owners of crossing the picket line or being released.
“I had played five years in the minors, and I already had two major knee surgeries,” Harrisburg Senators Manager Brian Daubach recently said. “It was a tough spot to be in. I knew where I was at. I couldn’t afford to get released, because I didn’t know if I would have found another job.”
Daubach, 23 at the time, decided to work out with the Mets’ replacement players, even though he said he had no intention of starting the season with a team patched together with players either well past their prime or with players who never had a prime.
The strike finally ended only a couple of days before the scheduled start of the real Mets’ season, leaving Daubach to thankfully return to the minors with New York’s Binghamton affiliate in the Class AA Eastern League.
Some organizations, like the Montreal Expos, promised roster spots in the minors for players willing to cross the line. The summer of 1995 saw a dozen replacement players assigned to Montreal’s Double-A team in Harrisburg. Only one of them, journeyman outfielder Tony Barron, ever reached the majors, and that was for only 58 games over the 1996-97 seasons.
“The teams weren’t honest with us, and the players’ association didn’t want us to play,” Daubach said. “That’s a tough situation for a 21-year-old kid. You really didn’t know who to listen to. Anytime you’re talking about not having a job, it’s not easy.”
Neither was dealing with the labels.
Daubach already was considered by the Mets to be an “organizational player” – a term for non-prospects that minor leaguers loathe to hear.
He later would be called a “scab” by opposing players after reaching the majors with Florida late in the 1998 season and even after starring for Boston from 1999-2002.
“It’s always better to be accepted, but I earned my way there,” Daubach said of a major league career that lasted for all or parts of eight seasons. “I know the best way to get along with people is to play well, and I did that.”
He just does not like to be reminded of the preamble to a decent career in the majors.
“It was a tough time for everybody,” Daubach said. “It was such a long time ago. …I’d rather just let it go.”
Andrew Linker is a local freelance writer and author of two books on baseball. His “Press Box” column will be a regular feature for Harrisburg Magazine, focusing on the area’s rich sports history as well as its equally bright present.