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Would MLB dare use replacement players in 2020?

While other pro sports leagues spent May and June forming concrete plans to get back to work, the baseball owners and players exchanged a series of non-starter, repackaged and unrealistic (under the current circumstances) proposals that have not brought them any closer to returning.

The caveat is that Rob Manfred has the power to impose a schedule that the players must show up for. That is why he was able to make this statement on Wednesday.

Under the two side’s March agreement, the commissioner has the power to mandate any schedule the owners choose and the players must show up — as long as they receive full prorated salary. They want it to be at least 80-ish games but apparently the owners can only afford 50-ish worth of full pay this season.

This blog isn’t about the financials (I wrote that one last week). Instead I wonder if the players would strike, even though it would technically be an “illegal” strike. A “legal” strike (which sounds oxymoronic) is allowed when the two sides are not bound by a CBA. So the next time the players could legally strike is after the 2021 season. But, if Manfred and the owners make players show up for a 50-game schedule with all the complexities of Coronavirus, only to earn about 1/3rd their full pay, would they strike? And if the players strike, would owners dare to use replacement players in 2020? Is that why Manfred can so confidently say they will play Major League Baseball this year?

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The last time MLB owners employed replacement players was spring 1995, when they almost made it to opening day with scabs. But that wasn’t the first time.

Even though there was no union, a player strike occurred in May 1912. The Detroit Tigers refused to play in protest of what they viewed as an unfair suspension of Ty Cobb — he had gone into the stands to attack a disabled fan who had been heckling him (yeah, Cobb was not a good guy). Fearing a forfeit and $5,000 fine, owner Frank Navin recruited local amateurs to play. These replacements got whooped 24-2 by the Philadelphia Athletics. Cobb’s teammates stuck by him even though they were all fined, but he convinced them to take the field while he finished his suspension.

Jumping ahead to 1994-95 when the players were on strike. Leading up to spring training the two sides were negotiating but not getting very far (sound familiar?). The owners almost imposed a new CBA with a salary cap. In January they backtracked on the idea but instead re-imposed the old CBA terms with a twist: replacement players. Bud Selig said:

We are committed to playing the 1995 season and will do so with the best players willing to play.

The threat of replacement players even got President Clinton involved. He asked that they go back to the bargaining table and make substantial headway toward ending the strike. They didn’t do that, so he threatened to strip baseball of its antitrust exemption if the dispute is not settled — something MLBPA president Donald Fehr attempted to do through Congress prior to the strike. Despite the President’s warning, owners carried on and opened spring training in February with replacement players even though not all were aligned on the issue. For example, Baltimore’s Peter Angelos refused to field a replacement squad.

Replacement Players

Today in baseball we use “replacement player” when discussing something like WAR, which literally means Wins Above Replacement. Aaron Judge’s WAR in 2019 was 5.5 — meaning he was worth 5.5 wins above a replacement level player. Well, not the replacement players who showed up for spring training 1995.

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The “scabs” (i.e. someone who crosses the picket line) were a motley crew. A few had MLB experience, most spent their time on affiliated minor league teams, and some had only played independent ball. As an article in the Los Angeles Times put it, it was “a wacky six weeks of replacement-player ball that was a fantasy camp for participants, an embarrassment to coaches and executives who oversaw it and a gold mine of material for baseball writers.”

The Marlins tried out a truck driver, a carpenter, a high school economics teacher, a junior varsity coach, a rookie league manager and two softball players at shortstop (funny because that could be a 2020 story as well).

The Angels had a replacement pitcher named Bryan Smith who was an active FBI Agent. They also had an outfielder named Jon Fishel who was arrested during the national anthem of a game for failing to pay child support. He spent the night in jail and was back in uniform the next day.

There was even a trade! The Indians traded five players to the Reds for future considerations. Cincy manager Davey Johnson said:

Cleveland definitely got the better end of the deal. They didn’t get anybody.

Johnson’s tone summed up the mood among coaches and fans. It was a charade, and nothing more. Fehr said:

It’s not the uniforms people come to watch. It’s the players.

And he was right. While we all root for laundry, the things wearing the laundry have to be able to hit a curveball and turn a 6-4-3 double play.

There are a few replacement players’ names you’ll recognize: Brendan Donnelly, Kevin Millar, Lou Merloni, Brian Daubach, and Shane Spencer.

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Players were offered $5,000 to cross the picket line and another $5,000 if they made the team. More important than money, they saw it as a realistic path to the major leagues — a dream they all shared. Jeff Grotewold, a 29-year old first baseman and replacement player for the Royals, talked about his feeling at the time.

My intention was not to cross a picket line. My intention was to keep a uniform on my back, continue to play and make a living. I was always the 26th, 27th, 28th guy on the roster, so you do what you can do. The common goal is for your family, and if I’m at home, I can’t support my family.

I get it. Not everyone had a big-money contract or was even a part of the Players Association. A Yankees replacement pitcher, Doug Cinnella, said:

I was all in, looking to do the best for the organization. The Major League Baseball Players Association did nothing for minor-league players.

That was the sad reality then and the reality now, although it has been nice to see David Price and Sean Doolittle go out of their way to help minor league players during the shutdown. Perhaps if that happened back in 1995, “scabs” wouldn’t have taken the field.

MLBPA guys were not happy. They sued owners for violating labor laws and after the strike ended, former replacement players weren’t universally welcomed in the clubhouse. But I wonder if anyone cared when Shane Spencer was hitting 10 home runs in September 1998? Or does anyone mention it to Kevin Millar now, seeing as how he’s now an employee of MLB Network?

Replacement players were also affected off the field. Since they were not a part of the union, they were not allowed to have their names or likeness used in MLBPA-licensed products. That’s why if you played a baseball video game in the late ’90s or early ’00s, those players had fake names.

People close to the situation said the ridiculousness of replacement players led to the end of the strike. They almost made it to opening day, but on March 31 Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a temporary injunction, preventing owners from playing with replacement players. This effectively ended the strike and the players went back to work under the terms of the old CBA, ready to play a 144-game season starting April 27.

They played the next two seasons without a new CBA, but free agency and arbitration was reinstated and players were credited with service time for the strike. Overall, the players came out on top post-strike and in the 1997-2001 agreement. The owners did implement revenue sharing and a luxury tax on the five highest payroll teams, but player salary continued to skyrocket (although not as high as franchise values). This agreement would be the last that the players had the upper hand and even though we’ve had 25 years of labor peace, we might be at a breaking point.

How would scabs be received today?

The general fan reaction to replacement players in 1995 was apathetic. I think there would be outrage today.

Leading up to the 1994 strike, the owners keenly positioned themselves as the good guys. Bud Selig and the owners claimed baseball teams were losing more and more money each year because of increasing player salaries and they projected many teams would be out of business unless a salary cap and revenue sharing system was implemented. While they didn’t provide financial data to back up this claim, they won the public relations battle.

My feeling is that the sentiment is firmly on the player’s side today. Yes, many of them are millionaires. Nobody feels badly for Giancarlo Stanton, who has already earned $115 million in his career (sorry G, just using you as an example). There are also plenty of players who’ve earned a couple mil and are probably doing fine. There are also the many high draft picks who signed million-dollar bonuses just a few years ago.

On the flip side, there are hundreds of players in the union who are pre-arbitration or have yet to receive any significant payday. While they’re still not poor — go look at the thousands of minor league baseball players if you really want to see struggling — they need to earn their salary.

Meanwhile, the average MLB franchise is valued at $1.65 billion (with a B!) and rising. Do I believe 2020 revenues are taking a significant hit without fans? Of course. Disregarding the reality that these uber-successful owners didn’t get there by giving handouts, collectively the owners can handle the hit more than the players can. That is why if the owners show up with replacements in 2020 the public will laugh in their face.