With flexibility its best pitch, strikeball takes field

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Texas Rangers were in T-shirts. The team was forced to open training camp with replacement jerseys yesterday when a shipment of uniforms did not arrive from Japan. A sign of the times.

Spring training -- circa 1995 -- is all about making adjustments. The Rangers have scoured the baseball landscape for months, signing dozens of players to minor-league and replacement contracts in preparation for baseball's season on the blink. Coming up with 108 blue T-shirts was the least of their problems.

The Orioles, the only club not using replacement players, began workouts yesterday with minor-leaguers. But the Rangers and 26 other clubs have just a few weeks to assemble representative replacement teams if baseball owners are to make good on their threat to start the season without striking major-leaguers.

Popular or not, the on-field part of that effort started for most teams yesterday in Florida and Arizona.

"The fans want baseball," Rangers president Tom Schieffer said. "The game is bigger than the owners and the players. They want to see baseball and we're going to try and give it to them."

It is a risky business. The use of strikebreakers threatens to further strain the contentious relationship between the owners and the players union, but it is part of a hard-line management bargaining strategy that probably won't be abandoned until the Major League Baseball Players Association cracks or there is a negotiated settlement to end the long-running labor war.

If replacement ball is inevitable, then the Rangers may be well-positioned to make it work for them. General manager Doug Melvin, plucked out of the Orioles' front office last fall, went on the assumption that striking players would not be back in time for Opening Day and moved aggressively to sign the best of the rest. The club opened camp with a roster that includes Mexican League MVP Johnny Monell and Italian League batting champion Luis Martinez.

"I've heard people say that those guys didn't do that against major-league pitchers," Melvin said, "but from what I understand, Roger Clemens and David Cone aren't going to be pitching."

St. Louis Cardinals manager Joe Torre was saying essentially the same thing earlier this week when 113 players reported to Cardinals spring camp in St. Petersburg. The quality of the competition may not be ideal, but Torre thinks that there will be a strange sort of competitive balance.

"You'll probably see that minor-leaguer who never could hit a curveball," he said, "but he'll be batting against a guy who can't throw one. Should be interesting."

So goes the conventional wisdom of an unconventional spring. The owners are moving ahead with a plan that could do serious damage to the integrity of the sport. Their front-office employees have little choice but to prepare for the worst and hope for a break in the stalemated labor negotiations.

The only organized resistance has come from Baltimore, where fTC Orioles owner Peter Angelos has made it clear that he will not field a replacement team. He informed the team's exhibition opponents yesterday that the Orioles will only participate in spring games if opposing clubs agree to use non-replacement minor-league players.

There have been some other displays of dissent -- Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson put his job in jeopardy yesterday when he refused to manage replacement players -- but the issue no longer is in debate. The owners commissioned a series of public opinion polls during the winter and concluded that baseball fans would rather have strikeball than no ball at all.

"We understand that this isn't exactly what people want," Melvin said. "This isn't what we want, but what are you going to do? The way I look at it, if you can fill Camden Yards and the Ballpark at Arlington with 48,000 people every night, I've got to believe that there are 15,000 of them who just like baseball."

The Rangers can only hope they are doing the right thing. They have a new stadium, a chance to host the All-Star Game in July, and a lot to lose by turning off their growing fan base.

"Overall, our fans have been very supportive," Schieffer said. "The message over and over is, 'We want to see baseball.' So we wanted to have the best team we could have. These games are going to count, so -- when and if the strike ends -- we want to be 10 games ahead instead of 10 games behind."

Most clubs have reduced ticket prices drastically to keep from alienating longtime customers.

The Rangers are preparing for every eventuality. They have signed about 15 players to replacement contracts, but they are keeping their replacement status secret so that they can be assimilated into the organization if the labor dispute is settled before Opening Day. Otherwise, those players might face reprisals from returning members of the club's 40-man major league roster.

Only one name has surfaced. Pitcher Jackie Davidson has openly admitted to his replacement status. He was drafted out of high school 12 picks ahead of Boston Red Sox ace Roger Clemens in 1983 but had washed out of pro baseball and had a job making deliveries to The Ballpark at Arlington when he agreed to be a strike breaker.

Manager Johnny Oates and a large group of coaches and instructors who still get their mail forwarded from Baltimore began evaluating the Rangers' talent pool yesterday. There were a few semi-recognizable names, but no one is predicting that the quality of play will be even close to major league caliber.

"The first few days," Oates said, "all I'm trying to do is learn everybody's name."

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