In 1995, baseball's rites of spring are played in a minor key Two Dreams On Hold

THE BALTIMORE SUN

West Palm Beach, Fla. -- About two weeks from now, the Minnesota Twins are scheduled to play an exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves at their spring training stadium here.

Maybe Brian Kowitz will step up to the plate, plant his feet and fix his eyes on the pitcher. And maybe he will see Brian Bark staring back at him.

From Little League to minor league, the two young Baltimoreans have long shared ball fields, either as teammates or opponents, but this particular face-off would have had special significance: Both Brians are on the cusp of making that magical leap into the big leagues. This spring could have been their spring.

That they may not meet on the field of Municipal Stadium is, in a nutshell, the story of baseball in this spring of our discontent. While millionaire major league players continue their strike against millionaire team owners, it is the minor leaguers who have been taken hostage.

They have worked and sweated their way up through the lowest ranks of pro baseball, the farm teams in the Scrantons and Elmiras and Johnson Cities of America. They've lived three or four to an apartment, scrimped on the per-diem meal money that supplements wages in the high four figures or the low five. But they've gotten through most of that -- as well as the injuries and other whims of fate that can stop careers dead. At this juncture, making the big leagues is still a dream, but an entirely achievable one.

That's where both Brians were. Until the strike. Brian Kowitz had moved onto the Minnesota Twins' 40-man roster as an outfielder. Brian Bark was considered a real contender, a minor leaguer still, but a pitcher with great promise for the Atlanta Braves.

The strike hasn't crippled either of them, of course. Once it's settled, they could be back on track at a moment's notice. They're ready, able and willing to say "How high?" when the major leagues say, "Jump."

What's harder to do is wait. Or to decide where you stand.

Brian Kowitz is waiting in Owings Mills, where both players live in the off-season, for an end to this unending strike. Brian Bark is waiting here, a minor league middle man in the great tug of war that has become baseball.

So many little boys dream of getting this far, of playing this game that those who did get this far are now refusing to play. Two of those boys were born in Baltimore, within about a year of each other, and raised in the northwest suburbs. One is even the son of a former professional ballplayer.

Brian Bark, 26, was brought up "the major league way," he says, taking a break between spring training drills in the morning and his own workout in the gym in the afternoon. He's vying for a spot on one of the best pitching staffs in the majors.

His father, Jerry, 49, was a pitcher in the Mets organization, leaving after four years in 1968. He's now a sales manager at a Baltimore advertising company. Watching from afar the son, he says maybe only half-jokingly, he played ball with since the baby could sit up.

Brian Bark's baseball memories don't go back quite that far, but he does recall playing all the time as a kid, starting in Little League and all through school. He played on the Randallstown High School team that won the state championship in 1985.

"He had ability far beyond my level, at any stage. But he also had a better teacher," Jerry Bark says. "He was always an achiever, even as a young boy. He always wanted to be No. 1."

Mr. Bark says his only baseball goal for his son was that he play college ball. It would be a good way to finance an education, thought Jerry Bark, who went to City College and the University of Maryland.

Dozens of colleges sought Brian Bark, and he settled on North Carolina State. There, he was an all-conference player four years in a row.

He loved playing baseball so much that he spent his youth as both an outfielder and a pitcher to increase his playing time. "I just love baseball. I love the game, I love to play it," he says. He never dreamed he'd have to consider not playing, to appease the players' union to which he aspires to belong and avoid being labeled a "scab."

Joining the minors

His hometown team, the Orioles, drafted him in his junior year, but Brian didn't think it was a very good offer. He stayed in college. The following year, 1990, the Braves drafted him in the 11th round.

He signed, and was sent to Pulaski, Va., for rookie ball. There he found Brian Kowitz.

The two had played against each other in summer leagues, "and we knew of each other a long time before we actually met," says Mr. Kowitz, who is a year younger. He thinks they actually got to know one another when he was 15 and his coach happened to be the other Brian's father.

Mr. Kowitz also played on his high school team, Boys Latin, and went to Clemson, which, like the other Brian's N.C. State, is in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They played against one another, and Brian Kowitz racked up awards as well, being named ACC player of the year when he was a junior.

"That was when it seemed to come together for me, it seemed to click," Mr. Kowitz says. In 1990, he was drafted in the eighth round by the Atlanta Braves.

The two Brians roomed together occasionally as they progressed up the Braves' organization, from Single A at the movie-famous Durham Bulls in North Carolina, to Double A in Greenville, S.C., and Triple A in Richmond, Va.

They have fond memories of those years, and consider themselves lucky to have been in a farm system so close to their hometown as well as their college towns. That helped, since both were dating girls back home. Brian Bark is now married to his high school girlfriend, Lisa, and Brian Kowitz is engaged to Amy Schwartz, who lived up the street from him in Owings Mills.

They had the usual setbacks now and again -- Brian Kowitz got knocked out and his nose smashed during one leaping attempted catch -- but they rose through the system quickly enough so that today, just 4 1/2 years after they were drafted, they're close to making it to the majors.

"We came up through the system together," says Mr. Kowitz, "and now we're both knocking on the door."

This spring, however, the game is a waiting game, as major leaguers, and perhaps minor leaguers as well, are sitting out until the strike is settled.

There's a rather desultory air at the camps, in contrast to the near giddy, let's-play-two atmosphere of years past -- a listless sense of waiting for something even as you know it may never come. This may make for great existentialist literature, but, as baseball, it stinks.

There are players here, just not the ones considered "real" players. Even the managers and coaches, as they go about their duties assessing the minor leaguers and replacement players, seem to be waiting for the "real" spring training to start.

"Every day, in the back of my mind, I'm still planning for when the regular guys will come in," Braves Manager Bobby Cox says, rather wistfully.

If you're a minor leaguer, you're probably used to this kind of slap, however unintentional. It's part of the system, you accept it, and you work like the devil to make it to the majors and get some respect.

'Shut up and pitch'

Brian Bark is one of the less anonymous players here at camp, where sometimes the only distinguishing characteristic among the men on the field seems to be the red jerseys that separate pitchers from the other players in navy blue.

The managers and coaches all know him, he's been in the organization his entire career, and he's considered a prospect with a real shot at making the majors.

He's managed to keep his focus on improving his skills while the controversy over whether minor leaguers will play games swirls around.

"When we're out there on the field, no one is talking about it," he says, even as he's being asked once again to do just that. Bright-eyed and all compressed energy, it's obvious he'd rather, as one T-shirt spotted at spring training camp put it, "Shut up and pitch."

But there's no way to avoid the issue: In the last couple of days, all the players will be asked their intentions. Will they play, as management is urging, or will they sit, as the union is pressing?

The vise is tightening.

The union has scheduled meetings with minor leaguers -- one was held here last night -- to stress their stance on playing in exhibition games: All participants will be considered scabs. Management has been calling meetings of its own to remind players just who is paying them and giving them their shot at big league ball.

"We know they're in a tough position," Chuck LaMar, the Braves' director of player development, says. "But the union is using them as pawns. We're a class organization that cared a lot about them before the strike and will care about them long after the strike. If we ask them to do something . . . that's something we do every year. Whether it's to arrive here on time, or play on that field, if he doesn't respond, he's asked to leave. It's no different this year."

Other teams have done just that: telling recalcitrant minor leaguers to empty out their lockers and putting them on a bus back home.

The Braves haven't taken such drastic steps yet, although there's no guarantee they won't. Timing will come into play. Brian Bark and other players at the camp will find out today who has been scheduled to play in the Braves exhibition opener tomorrow against the Georgia Tech college team. Tomorrow, they'll find out who is on the roster for Friday's game against the New York Yankees, and on and on throughout the season.

The Braves aren't saying what they would do to scheduled players who fail to show up. But, there's also a chance they'll ease up on the minor leaguers caught in this awful bind: One official notes that there are plenty of replacement players in camp; perhaps they will be the ones scheduled for the first games. That would protect the minor league prospects for awhile, and maybe the strike could be settled without them having to decide whether to cross the line.

Decision time

This is what Brian Bark had to weigh this week as he made his own decision.

His buddy back home, Brian Kowitz, is just happy to be spared this quandary. "I'm very glad I didn't have to make that decision," Mr. Kowitz says. "I would feel very resentful about the union. For some guys, how can you blame them for taking the money? They may never play again. How can you tell them not to play?"

He has spent spring training working out in the basement of the Owings Mills home of his parents, Jack, an attorney, and Pat, a homemaker. He takes his swings in an old shed in the backyard that he has turned into a makeshift batting cage. The Twins have told him one of two starting outfield positions is his to win. Only right field is spoken for, by perennial All-Star Kirby Puckett.

When he can, Brian Kowitz works out in the winter chill with the Towson State University baseball team. One of the coaches is Brian Bark's brother, Rob.

But mostly, Brian Kowitz is waiting. And hoping that the strike can be settled without further damage to the season.

"I have to prove myself to the Twins, and I can't do that if I'm sitting at home," Mr. Kowitz says. "I finally got a chance to realize my dream, and it's been put on hold."

A long-term decision

In the end, Brian Bark says it wasn't that hard to make a decision about his dream. He'll resist opting for immediate gratification. He's made decisions all through his career, and now he's made the one that he thinks will be the best in the long term.

He won't play.

"I want to play in the major leagues with these guys," he says of the players in the union.

His decision may have been made easier than that faced by more marginal players. Since he is a valued prospect, management may attempt to protect him.

Whatever the other players at camp decide, he won't condemn them -- everyone, he says, has to decide what's best for him, no one else.

"Every guy in camp is in a different situation."

His father, having watched with pride as his son rose through the ranks of the game they both love, expresses support for Brian's decision. He recalls a tough decision of his own, one made at a similar juncture -- four years into his own minor league career.

There was no union then. No free agency. None of the complicated things that have landed baseball in this surreal limbo.

But there was a baby boy.

"I knew it was just a matter of time before my elbow would be worn out. My numbers were good," Mr. Bark says. "But Brian was just born

and over the course of the winter, I thought, 'Do I really want to leave home again with a son?' "

Mr. Bark decided to leave baseball.

He has never regretted that decision, and though the world of baseball is much more complicated now, he hopes Brian won't regret his either. Like every father who wants the best for his son, he can only wait and hope and see if it indeed works out that way.

It is some consolation that Brian will not, for all his tough decisions, face the one his father did.

Brian and his wife have decided not to start a family until after the minors.

"I think that was drummed into him," his father says with a laugh, "since he was 3 months old."

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