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A look back at 1995 replacement player spring training

It wasn’t a shining moment in MLB history.

Damian Miller bats for the Cubs in 2003. Miller was a Twins replacement player during spring training in 1995
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

While we wait for news from this afternoon’s scheduled MLB/MLBPA negotiating session. I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at MLB’s use of replacement players during 1995 spring training and see how it all functioned.

It should be noted that the MLBPA took MLB to court over this and a court ruling was issued enjoining MLB from the use of replacement players in late March 1995. The MLBPA had stated it would end their strike if such a ruling was issued, and they did so, thus setting up a quick three-week spring training camp for the MLBPA players and the 144-game season that was played in 1995.

Here, though, is how replacement player spring training worked and the plans that were made for their possible use in a 1995 regular season:

Per Baseball Almanac:

Each Major League team was permitted to carry thirty-two replacement players on their rosters for Opening Day and twenty-five could be used in any game. No waivers were going to be used, no disabled lists, and salaries were set at $115,000 (plus a $5,000 signing bonus, a $5,000 bonus for making the Opening Day roster, and up to three players could have a contract as high as $275,000).

When the strike finally came to an end, Major League players had a three week Spring Training and replacement players were either sent to the Minor Leagues, terminated, or in some cases given a team travel bag to load their belongings in before leaving to their homes.

Most of the Major League teams paid this and gave a severance ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 per player. The St. Louis Cardinals, on the other hand, gave each replacement player $25,000 while the Montreal Expos gave each player a jersey. The Phillies, who probably did not want to be considered as cheap as the Expos, gave each player their jersey AND a ball signed by the entire team (the same team that they were playing on / with).

So that’s how it worked. Here, per this useful information compiled by Jason Robertson, is the 1995 Cubs replacement player roster. Of the 43 players listed below, nine (noted below in boldface) played in actual major league regular season games. Of those, all but one of them (Joe Strong) were in MLB before their replacement player time, and only two (Phil Stephenson and Scott May) played for the Cubs:

1B: Mike Robertson, Sean Ryan, Phil Stephenson
2B: Rusty Crockett, Doug Kimbler
SS: Steve Fanning, Bobby Magallanes, Keith Smith
3B: Kenny Coleman, Fabio Gomez, Jose Viera
C: Craig Faulkner, Jose Fernandez, Jack Johnson, Carl Nichols
OF: Jason Felice, Brian Finley, Mark Gieseke, Richie Grayum, Kinnis Pledger, Scott Samuels, Joey Terilli
SP: Bill Brennan, Matt Connolly, Luis DeLeon, Scott May, Kevin Meier, Randy O’Neal, Dana Ridenour
RP: Joe Brownholtz, Joe Housey, Charles Hudson, Jason Klonoski, Kevin Kobetitsch, Zak Krislock, Mark Mammola, Edwin Morales, Shanon (Tad) Powers, Don Pruitt, Steve Rowley, Joe Strong, Frank (Preston) Watson, Andy Wise

I did not go to spring training that year, not wanting to see this farce, so I can’t tell you about any of those players from first-hand experience. Replacement players who did later play for MLB teams were not permitted to join the MLBPA throughout their playing careers. Among those players was Damian Miller, a Twins 1995 replacement player who was a key contributor to the 2003 Cubs NL Central champions. Others included pitchers Kerry Ligtenberg, Brendan Donnelly and Ron Mahay (also a Cub briefly in 2001 and 2002), as well as Marty Pevey, who has been the manager of the Iowa Cubs since 2013.

This Tribune article by Joseph A. Reaves from March 1995 explains some of the dilemmas some of the replacement players faced in choosing to play:

Jason Ryan, 19, is one of the most promising young pitching prospects in the Cubs’ farm system. His 26-year-old brother, Sean, is batting .360 as a switch-hitting first baseman for the replacement Cubs.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Sean said. “This is my sixth year (in professional ball). Last year was it for me. I was retired. I’d be selling municipal bonds on Wall Street and studying to be an electrician.

“But when this opportunity opened up, you bet I grabbed it. I have to do this. I have a child and bills have to be paid. I think people understand.”

Jason Ryan, as noted, was once a top Cubs pitching prospect. He was traded to the Twins, with Kyle Lohse, in 1999 for Rick Aguilera and Scott Downs. Lohse had a long MLB career (as did Downs), but Ryan pitched in only 24 MLB games with a 5.94 ERA and was out of baseball by 2004.

Among others who played as a replacement player in 1995, per Baseball Almanac:

Pedro Borbon had not played in the majors since 1980, but crossed the picket line to play again. The New York Times explained, “He became part of baseball lore in 1995 when, at age 48, he decided to return to the game as a replacement player during Major League Baseball’s labor dispute. He struck out the only batter he faced in an exhibition against the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla. But the Reds released him after he faced one batter in a game against the Indians, fell down while trying to field a bunt and threw wildly to first base for an error.”

Meanwhile, Orioles owner Peter Angelos did not participate, saying:

“My position hasn’t changed,” Angelos said today. “The use of so-called replacement players would stigmatize the game.”

And, he added, “we have a special problem in Baltimore with the Cal Ripken streak, an extraordinary accomplishment by Cal and one that we certainly will do everything to avoid harming.”

Ripken, as you know, eventually broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak in September 1995.

And had the season actually begun with replacement players, the Toronto Blue Jays would have been legally enjoined from fielding a team in Ontario:

The Blue Jays, one of two Canadian teams in the major leagues, are the only one that plays in Ontario. And in November 1992, that province passed Bill 40 of the Ontario Labor Relations Act. In part, the bill states that “a business cannot bring in replacement workers to replace union workers who are legally on strike.” The only exceptions allowed are for strikes in essential service areas such as hospitals, law enforcement and ambulance and rescue operations.

It wasn’t a pleasant time for baseball. The replacement Cubs went 14-13 in spring games, including one contest in an MLB park, a 12-inning, 6-5 loss to the Rangers at what was then called the Ballpark at Arlington, which had opened the previous year. 13,899 paid to see that replacement player game. After that, as noted above, the 144-game schedule was instituted and a hastily-arranged three-week spring training was held with the regular players. Former Commissioner Fay Vincent, who had been dumped by owners two years before the strike was called in 1994, summed up the end of the labor stoppage this way, per Claire Smith of the New York Times:

What a tremendous waste of time it all was. I feel a combination of sadness and embarrassment. I feel very bad for an institution that I was involved with, that it is just so untidy and unsuccessful. It’s embarrassingly inept. The tragedy is a lack of planning, a lack of care.

Those words could describe what’s happening with baseball today. MLB would never have considered using replacement players in the current dispute, and that’s a good thing. But I thought you’d like to see some of the history behind their use during spring training 27 years ago. If you are further interested, this spreadsheet has a list of all the replacement players used by all MLB teams in spring 1995.