The last time MLB postponed opening day and shortened its season, the internet hosted around 3,000 websites and Tupac Shakur wasn’t only alive, he was incarcerated, recovering from multiple gunshot wounds suffered during a robbery, and yet to release his highest-selling studio album, All Eyez on Me.
That was 1995, when MLBers went on strike in vehement opposition to a salary cap and reduced players’ revenue share that owners were insisting was necessary to guarantee the financial well-being of small-market clubs. Labour action began late in the 1994 season and, when the work stoppage finally ended at 232 days, it was the longest in North American professional sports to that point, and had seen the World Series cancelled for the first time in 90 years.
But while the issues of the day were drastically different from those in this current spring without baseball, some of the lessons learned still hold true a quarter-century later. Sportsnet reached out to a cast of individuals who were working in baseball at the time, seeking to hear their stories and look back at the last time the sport was upended as it is now.
Pat Hentgen was thinking it all felt so surreal. It was Aug. 12, 1994. The previous night, he’d been on the mound at Yankee Stadium, allowing six runs in six innings in what finished as an 8–7, 13-inning Blue Jays win. Afterwards, everyone went their separate ways for what turned out to be a calamitous players’ strike. He boarded a plane home uncertain when he’d pitch again. “It was a sad, lonely flight,” he says. “As players, that’s a group of men who love the game as much as anybody on earth. It was a weird time.”
Hentgen was an assistant to team union-rep Ed Sprague, and they were confident there was plenty of time for the sides to resolve their issues and negotiate a new deal. No one believed ownership would follow through on threats to cancel the post-season, but as the stalemate wore on, they began to understand that the resolve across the bargaining table was different this time. “We were like, ‘Wow, this is actually going to happen. There’s not going to be a World Series,’” recalls Hentgen. “We were listening to our leader, Don Fehr, and doing our best to stay together as a group. There was a lot of talk about the ’81 strike during the ’94 meetings.”
Once the season was actually cancelled, “we were shocked,” he adds. “But we stayed together.”
That’s why the next spring, rather than reporting for duty in Dunedin, Fla., Hentgen gathered with teammates Todd Stottlemyre, Randy Knorr, Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric at a high school in nearby Oldsmar to run their own training camp. Every day, while the machinations played out behind the scenes, they ran, threw, hit and trained as best they could. When insurance issues forced them to find another venue, they moved to what was then known as Canal Park. “There were two or three little ballparks, some bootleg mounds that were in between, and we made the best of what we had,” says Hentgen. “We threw sides. We threw up-and-downs. We did exactly what we would have done, we just didn’t face live hitters. We threw simulated games with intensity. Guys hit off each other. The off-season just went another month and a half.”
Throughout, they had no contact with the Blue Jays front office or coaches, and no one from the club tracked their work, something unthinkable today. Maintaining unity in a tumultuous time was a priority. “It was players-only because we had to stay together — we didn’t want any staff member or anything like that. We were self-coaching. We were big-leaguers. We knew what we had to do,” says Hentgen. “We had routines and knew how to get prepared.”
Still, the time was not without its challenges, especially for minor-league players, who had to navigate the various pressures they faced from their teams, their teammates, their agents, their families. Big-leaguers felt those stresses, too, especially as the impasse dragged on and on, although the Blue Jays were relatively fortunate in that regard. “There was zero pressure from the organization on our minor-leaguers to cross and become replacement players,” says Hentgen. “I remember talking to friends on other teams, and they were getting pressure from the owners. We did not.”
By the time the strike had worked its way through the courts, the replacement-player plan had been kyboshed. When camps reopened, Hentgen felt mostly ready to go. What he needed was the fine-tuning only competition in a game-environment can provide.
When the COVID-19 pandemic is under control and play resumes, Hentgen expects it to be similar. “These big-league guys,” he says, “they know what they’re doing.”
Jeff Frye was starting to worry about money. The Texas Rangers second baseman, a couple weeks away from his 28th birthday, was in the big-leagues for the second time after missing all of 1993 with a knee injury, and had barely started collecting the major-league minimum, which at the time was $109,000. He had moved to Arlington and mentioned his financial concerns while guesting on a local radio show. An executive from the Allen Samuels Northwood Dodge dealership was listening, called in and was put on the air. “She goes, ‘Well, we’re hire you,’” recalls Frye, who played in parts of eight big-league seasons and is now a player agent. “I was like, ‘Really?’ And she was, ‘Yeah. I’ll leave my number, you give me a call after the show.’
“I went in, met with them and they hired me to basically stand around the showroom floor and greet customers as they came in, sign autographs. They paid me $40 an hour and gave me a free car to drive. It worked out cool.” Frye would work at the dealership from August of 1994 until the following April.
With his finances somewhat settled and his idle time filled, Frye could breathe a little easier. But still, there was plenty of angst. He’d posted a .646 OPS in 67 games as a rookie in 1992. When the knee injury derailed him the following year, it was a devastating blow for a 30th-round draft pick who was all off five-foot-nine and 165 pounds and had to scratch and claw for every opportunity he got. The ’94 season marked a pivotal point in his career, batting .327/.408/.454 in 57 games to prove that not only was he healthy, but also capable of contributing in a meaningful way.
All that progress was on pause because of the strike, but Frye did what he could to maintain his form. He would meet a friend a couple of times a week at the local batting cage to hit for an hour and hit the gym for workouts, but there wasn’t much to do beyond that as days stretched to weeks and months. “Those days were a little bit different,” says Frye. “It’s not like you had to show up in spring training in game shape like now, training year-round, which is a big reason why I think guys are getting hurt so much these days. They never give their body a rest. I’d go hit, take some groundballs when it looked like we were getting closer, just normal routine. I was never a guy who was going to gain 20 pounds of fat in the off-season and then work it off. I weigh five pounds more today than when I was playing.”
The April 2 restart and shortened camps didn’t bother him much, and Frye says other position players felt the same way. “We never thought we needed a month-and-a-half of spring training, anyway,” he says. “You have enough time to get going and locked in and by the time it ends you’re in a slump already.”
Aaron Sele was in over his head. It had been six years since he’d taken a math course of any kind, and no matter how long he stared at his textbook, the numbers wouldn’t co-operate. “Epically hard,” he recalls of his dive back into academics. “You go back to taking real math and you’re like ‘Oh, crap. I’ve never even heard of these terms.’”
To be fair, Sele wasn’t really supposed to be back in college that fall. He should have been in the Red Sox’s rotation – the No. 2 starter behind ace Roger Clemens. But once the strike began, Sele knew the layoff could be a long one. Intent on making the most of the shutdown, the 24-year-old returned to Washington State University, where he had become Boston’s first-round pick three summers earlier, and re-enrolled in a semester’s worth of classes. He figured he may as well work toward his psychology degree, even if it meant re-immersing himself in subjects he thought he’d left behind for good. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go and work out and nobody knew what was going to happen,” he says. “I figured worst-case scenario if we start up again, I just drop my classes and leave.”
That fall term provided some structure for Sele, a Seattle-area native who finished third in 1993 AL Rookie of the Year voting then posted a 3.83 ERA during the strike-shortened 1994 season. But once the calendar flipped to January without any resolution on CBA talks, the uncertainty started to wear on him. As minor-leaguers and replacement players filled camps, he monitored the latest news, hoping for an agreement but wary of false starts. “It was, ‘Hey, you’re going to start on this date.’ ‘No, you’re not.’ ‘Now you’re going to go on this date.’ ‘No, you’re not.’ ‘You’re going to go on this date.’ ‘Yeah, sure we are.’ ‘Oh crap, we’re actually going to go.’”
After months of failed negotiations, federal judge Sonia Sotomayor stepped in and ended the work stoppage late in March of 1995. The season would begin less than four weeks later.
Suddenly, it was time for Sele to leave Seattle, report to Red Sox camp in Fort Myers, Fla., and ramp up for the regular season. The six or so spring starts he’d normally make were a luxury the baseball calendar could no longer afford. Instead, he’d have to make the most of the time he had. And, with Clemens down due to an injured groin, Sele was tabbed as Boston’s opening day starter. No pressure. “There’s a reason six weeks of spring training works for pitchers,” he says. “Hitters hate it. Hitters are like, ‘Why are we here for so long?’ And they’re right from their perspective, but pitchers need that six weeks.”
At first, there were no signs of trouble for Sele or the Red Sox. The right-hander pitched five scoreless innings against the Twins on opening day and newcomer Jose Canseco led the way offensively on the way to a 9–0 rout. (Speaking to the media that day, Canseco predicted 150 home runs on the season between himself, first baseman Mo Vaughn, outfielder Mark Whiten and catcher Mike Macfarlane; they would combine for 79.) But after just six starts, Sele’s shoulder started bothering him. He hit the disabled list and didn’t pitch at all after late May. In hindsight, that season was anomalous for Sele, who proved exceptionally durable over the decade to follow with two all-star appearances and an average of 29 starts per season. Looking back, he believes the abrupt start to the 1995 season likely contributed to his injury. “You just ramped up,” he says. “It was too much, too fast with the volume of throws, and I just wasn’t ready.”
Shawn Green was a little star-struck. Technically speaking, he was a big-leaguer already, having appeared with the Blue Jays in 1993 and ’94. Not only that, he was a first-round pick and widely considered one of the game’s best prospects. But in the context of the MLB Players Association, service time counts more than potential, and at 22 and with all of 17 big-league games to his name, Green had barely any logged. When the MLBPA gathered its members for a call or meeting on the latest CBA talks, Green was there, silent and impressed. “It was kind of surreal being a 22-year-old rookie and being in the same conversation and same meetings as guys that were future Hall of Famers,” he recalls.
He was living at his parents’ place near Anaheim, Calif., home for the couple of months between winter ball and spring training. He had spent the previous summer riding buses in anonymity for the triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. Now, here he was on the same line as Clemens, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson. “I was pretty intimidated,” Green says. “I had their posters on my wall.”
Content to let established players to take the lead on CBA matters, Green directed his focus toward the field as the 1995 season approached. The previous year had been a good one for the outfielder, who hit .344 with 13 home runs for Syracuse. That winter, Baseball America ranked him sixth among all prospects, behind only Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, Ruben Rivera and Brian Hunter. With a strong showing in spring training, he’d have a chance to win the starting right-field job. He was excited. But until there was a season to play, there was no job to win. Negotiations dragged on, and early in 1995, when spring training would normally be getting started, Green was still at home.
He intensified his workouts and tried to prepare himself mentally for the challenges ahead. Soon enough, though, the uncertainty surrounding the start of the season took its toll. A bizarre feeling settled in for Green, who needed an outlet for all of his energy. Eager for some kind of movement, he called Howard Battle, a fellow prospect in the Blue Jays system, and suggested going to Florida to wait out the work stoppage there. “For the young guys who are trying to make it or trying to establish themselves, there’s a higher level of excitement, a higher level of anxious energy. It’s really hard to find a place to put that energy when you’re body’s already on this clock of ramping up,” Green says. “It definitely wore on guys. The media made it feel like the players were cracking and then other players would come out and jump on top of that player and be critical. The longer the work stoppage lasts, the harder it is for people to maintain composure.
“It was a pretty good roller-coaster ride that winter,” he adds.
When Sotomayor’s ruling came down, Green could finally compete for his first extended chance in the majors. But with opening day scheduled for April 26, he had limited time to convince manager Cito Gaston that he deserved to play. He’d have to make the most of it. “You’ve just got to hope you’re seeing the ball and you’re hot when the opening bell rings,” he says.
When the season began at SkyDome, Green was starting in right field. Starting in left for the Athletics that evening was Henderson, whose presence had impressed Green on those off-season conference calls. Now, after a longer-than-expected off-season, Green would finally have the chance to prove he had truly deserved to be on the line.
Joe Siddall was facing an impossible decision. As a 26-year-old catcher in the Montreal Expos organization, one who had been living the minor-league grind for seven seasons with little in the way of career earnings to show for it, Siddall was exactly the kind of leveraged player clubs were targeting as potential strikebreakers. “There was a group of us who had come up through the organization together who they were dangling this money in front of,” Siddall says now. “And we’re all looking at each other, like, ‘Yeah, I’m uneasy about this.’”
Siddall and his minor-league teammates were being offered $5,000 to report to big-league camp as replacement players, with an additional $5,000 if they made the opening day roster. Would this be their best chance to play in the majors? Should they just take the money while they could? If they didn’t take it, would the organization be resentful and never give them another opportunity?
Then again, could they live with themselves if they did? There were no easy answers.
The strike had already wreaked havoc on Siddall’s career. He’d made his MLB debut in 1993, earning a mid-season call-up to come off Expos manager Felipe Alou’s bench late in games and make the odd start behind Darrin Fletcher and Lenny Webster. During the ensuing spring training, Siddall was in a competition with fellow catcher Tim Spehr to open the season filling that role — and he was winning it. By the end of camp, word had gotten out that Alou highly valued Siddall’s defence behind the plate, and that the Expos were planning to bring him north for opening day.
But on the final day of spring training, as Siddall was literally loading his bags on a truck bound for Montreal, Spehr approached him and revealed a crucial fact that had somehow alluded Expos management. “He said, ‘Dude, they think that I have minor-league options left. I don’t have options left,’” Siddall remembers. “Sure enough, I got called into the office and they’re telling me they’ve made a terrible mistake. That they were going to option Spehr down and keep me but realized that he’s out of options. I was just devastated.”
Beginning the season with the Expos triple-A affiliate, the Ottawa Lynx, Siddall was at least buoyed by the fact Alou and the Expos liked him enough to have him on their original opening day roster. He knew he’d be a September call-up at least, contributing to a team that was running away with its division and on a 105-win pace. But then the strike hit in August, wiping out the season before Siddall’s opportunity ever arrived.
That near big-league miss made Siddall’s decision in the spring of ’95 that much more difficult. He was feeling pressure from all directions. He remembers visits at the minor-league hotel from influential union figures like Bobby Bonilla and John Franco, who had made millions over long MLB careers and were imploring veteran minor-leaguers like him not to cross picket lines. “All of us were like, ‘Yeah, easy for you guys to say,’” Siddall remembers. “It just added to the uneasiness. You really didn’t want to do the wrong thing.”
Unsure where to turn, he asked Alou what the manager thought he should do during a midday break at minor-league camp. “He says, ‘This shit’s not going to last forever. It’s going to be over some time. And when it’s over, you want to be a major-league ballplayer. So, you’ve got to think about your career,’” Siddall remembers. “His point was, this is temporary. It’s kind of like what we’re going through right now. Ride the storm out, let it all settle and come to be, and then live happily ever after — hopefully as a big leaguer without any ramifications or consequences. So, I took that to heart. And that’s what I did.”
When he refused to cross the picket line, Siddall was no longer welcome at club facilities as they moved forward with replacement players. He simply had to wait things out at home, fortunate that his wife, Tamara, worked as a physician. “She supported my baseball habit for years, to be quite honest with you,” he says. “I was very lucky to have her to support our family … A lot of guys were panicking, scrambling — not sure where money was going to come from.”
Ultimately, Sotomayor’s District court injunction stopped MLB owners from using replacement players only days prior to the beginning of the season. When the strike ended not long after, it seemed like Siddall had made the right decision after all. But when opening day came around in late April, he was back in triple-A, despite the Expos fielding a much worse team and losing Webster in free agency.
That wound was salted when Siddall was informed by Lynx manager Pete Mackanin that he’d lost his starting catcher’s job to Clemente Alvarez — a minor-league free agent who wasn’t with the organization the year prior but had been happy to take the $5,000 that Siddall refused. “From my perspective, I was just doing the right thing. But from the team’s perspective, they’re probably thinking, ‘Well, this guy didn’t help us out,’” Siddall says. “I remember being just royally pissed off about it. This guy was nothing special, and he goes from the big-league replacement player camp to playing in front of me in Ottawa. That was just rotten.”
True talent won out in the end. Siddall earned more and more playing time as the season went on, and when the Expos made September call-ups that year, Siddall was the one going to Montreal. Alou was right. The uncertainty didn’t last forever. And in the end, Siddall was a major-league ballplayer.
“You do what you think is right. I’ve always lived by that motto,” he says. “And to me the right thing was to not join something that I didn’t consider as Major League Baseball. And, just like Felipe said, in the end things settled, everything got back to normal, and I was very glad I did that right thing.”
Gord Ash was inheriting a mess. Named Pat Gillick’s replacement as Toronto Blue Jays general manager with the industry still deadlocked on Oct. 14, 1994, he took over a team with a roster in sharp decline after consecutive World Series titles in 1992 and ’93. The owners’ cockamamie scheme to open the 1995 season with replacement players, a plan the Blue Jays reluctantly went along with, only created more headaches for the then 42-year-old, as Ontario labour law prevented the use of scab workers. “It was an interesting time to say the least,” says Ash, now vice-president, baseball projects for the Milwaukee Brewers.
There was a playbook on the baseball side — avoid high-end free agents while the payroll rebalanced, be opportunistic to find pitching, buy time for the club’s prospect cache to develop — but the Blue Jays were very much making things up on the fly on the other end. To satisfy the their obligations to Major League Baseball, they needed a place to play. Fortunately, the club’s spring home in Dunedin, Fla., offered a path forward since its advanced-A Florida State League team was a separate business entity and not subject to Ontario’s rules.
Eventually, Dunedin became the home field of a group dubbed the “Who Jays.” The next equally daunting task was to figure out who they would actually dress for games. The Blue Jays held open tryouts and scoured all avenues outside the organization for any talent they could find, but made a point of not looking in-house. “Everybody was dipping into the same bag of talent, so there wasn’t much to go around,” says Ash. “We did something different than most: We didn’t use any of our own [minor-league players]. We didn’t encourage any of our own players to participate and didn’t use any of our own major-league staff. We sent our major-league staff over to the minor-league camp where we thought they could be more impactful.”
Essentially, the Blue Jays created an entirely new ecosystem for the replacement players, totally separate from the rest of the organization. While manager Cito Gaston and his coaches ran spring training for the club’s prospects, Bob Didier, the club’s manager at triple-A Syracuse, and his staff led the replacements.
The benefits were twofold: First, Gaston and company got a chance to get a wide-ranging look at the players coming up through the system; and second, no player who might eventually reach the big-leagues would cause resentment in the clubhouse because he’d been a replacement. “We knew we were going to play baseball eventually,” says Ash, “so we knew we wanted to keep them separate.”
On March 3, 1995, the Who Jays lost their first spring game 3–2 to Pittsburgh, thanks to a sixth-inning homer by Tommy Mitchell, who had been selling sporting goods at a K-Mart in Reno, Nev., before signing with the Pirates. The stress on Ash and the Blue Jays only built from there, as they feared starting the season with a bad replacement team and getting buried in the standings by the time their real players were finally able to return. Those worries ended with Sotomayor’s March 31 decision. Camps reopened with big-leaguers April 2, and a different sort of scramble started for Ash, who had to cram a winter’s worth of business into a few wild weeks.
Four days later, he pulled off his third trade as GM and first of consequence, reacquiring David Cone from the Kanas City Royals. “That gave us a little spark as we started regular spring training,” says Ash. “Like a lot of these good trades, it just kind of happened. It wasn’t months in the making at all. Herk Robinson was the GM and we were surprised that David was available because I think they had paid half of his salary as a signing bonus. That obviously was a sunk cost, so we were picking up the balance of the contract just in salary. They wanted to acquire prospects and we gave them three players that we liked, but when you’re getting somebody of that calibre, you’re prepared to move players. I don’t think any of them went on to do anything dramatic.”
Neither did the Blue Jays during a 56–88 season that included Ash sending Cone to the Yankees on July 28. As for what it might have been like had the replacements actually started the season? “Thank goodness that didn’t happen,” is Ash’s sole reply.
Bob Boone was being mercilessly booed by 24,000 of his team’s fans. It was opening day 1995. After more than eight months of labour unrest, baseball was finally back, and the most remarkable thing was happening at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City — Royals right-hander Kevin Appier was throwing a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles.
Problem was, as Appier took the mound for the seventh he’d already blown way past his pitch limit. After such a long layoff and an abbreviated spring training, all MLB starters were still building up to full workloads. Mike Mussina, a future Hall-of-Famer, started for Baltimore that day and was lifted after throwing five shutout innings, his pitch count having reached 49. As he came out of the dugout for the seventh, Appier was one shy of 90.
Boone, hired as Kansas City’s bench boss during the strike, was managing his first MLB game and already encountering his first controversial decision. His pitching coach was pleading with him not to let Appier throw his arm off. This had to be his last inning. So, Boone got a reliever up in the bullpen as Appier got his first out. Then Appier got another, striking out Cal Ripken Jr. of all people. Boone’s mind was racing. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Okay, hurry, get another out real quick, Kevin, so I can take you out,’” Boone remembers. “And then it just dawns on me — what am I doing? If the next guy gets a hit, he’s coming out of the game. If he gets the next guy out, he’s still coming out of the game. So, I’m risking this guy’s arm for what? I’m sitting there thinking all this and then I just say to myself, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, Bob. This is crazy. I’m taking him out right now.’”
Boone jumped up and out of the dugout to make his first mound visit as an MLB manager. And to say the crowd was displeased would be an understatement. “As soon as my head pops out of that dugout, they’re all over me,” he says. “It’s my first game. And all these people are sitting up there saying that I’m the dumbest guy that’s ever run a team. Of course, in this day and age, if you let a pitcher blow that far past his pitch limit, it’ll get you fired on the spot.”
Even before he endeared himself to the fanbase, Boone’s introduction to MLB managing had been a tumultuous one. He had begun his Royals tenure — following a nearly two-decade MLB career as one of the game’s best defensive catchers — trying to piece together a rag-tag crew of replacement players that Kansas City was planning to start the season with. “We put together a team,” he says, “of anybody who would come play for us.”
It was an interesting spot for Boone to be in. He was heavily involved with the union throughout his career, and had a son, Bret, who played second base for the Cincinnati Reds and was a striking player at the time. His other son, Aaron, was a minor-leaguer in the Reds organization who refused to cross the picket line. But here was dad, who’d encouraged his sons to follow in his footsteps and be active in the union, working every day with strikebreakers. Not that Boone was bothered by the uncomfortable position. “The way I looked at it — I had a job to do. I didn’t feel like I was on either side. I was hired to manage this team regardless of who was on it,” he says. “Remember, these were just kids involved in all that. It’s sad when the politics of the whole thing starts crushing you. It put a lot of pressure on those guys. They needed jobs. They didn’t have much money. They wanted to play in the big leagues. And this was their chance to show what they could do. They were put in a really tough position. They had a lot of pressure from the major leaguers to not play and become scabs. I more appreciated them and what they had to go through. They had really tough decisions to make.”
That empathy and respect for his players continued to inform Boone’s decision-making even after the strike ended. During the ‘95 season, many MLB clubs were reticent to call up minor-leaguers who had been in camps as replacement players, fearing the impact it would have on their clubhouses. But if Boone’s opening day experience taught him anything it was not to care about public perception. When he needed to cover for injuries or give his roster a boost during the season, he didn’t hesitate to call on minor-leaguers he’d gotten to know during the replacement player camp — even though it made veterans in his clubhouse furious. “Yeah, we had a couple confrontations. I had to straighten some people out. I said, ‘Look, this is my decision. And if you don’t like it, you can go away. Or we can fight right here if you want to,’” Boone says. “Didn’t have to throw a punch in the end. For me, it was the best players play. And I had a couple of guys who really showed me that they could play. And they made my team better.”
Boone looks back on that strike-shortened 1995 season, in which he led his out-gunned Royals to a second-place finish in the division, as one he’s proud of, one that taught him a lot about how the game responds in uncertain times like its facing now, and one he hopes his son Aaron, who today manages the New York Yankees, can learn from.
“It was not a pretty time. And whatever happens this year will be just as challenging for today’s players. But, tough times, tough situations — so what?” Boone says. “Your job as a manager is getting your team ready to meet the challenge of today. It’s just like a manager of a 7/11 or a grocery store. You get your people to be the best they can be. And if you’re worried about other things, you’re not going to be as good as you possibly can be. One of the things that I’m grateful for is that Aaron has that ability. Because that’s what allows you to go through the trials and tribulations that you do in this game.”
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