The rites of spring played out to a striking tune

Rupert Cornwell reports from Miami on the turmoil engulfing baseball as minor-league players begin training for the new major-league season
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The Independent Online
Be thankful for one small mercy, that baseball clubs retire the numbers of their greatest stars. At least, therefore, we are spared the ultimate indignity of imposters currently masquerading as the New York Yankees in uniforms bearing the 3 of Babe Ruth, the 4 of Lou Gehrig or the 5 of Joe DiMaggio. But that is about the only consolation as the collective lunacy gripping America's national sport enters a new phase.

This year, as always, the Yankees, baseball's most famous club, are down here among the palm trees and pina coladas 20 miles north of Miami preparing for the campaign ahead. For addicts of the sport, nothing quite matches the romance of spring training, when the major-league teams come to Florida to loosen up old bones and indulge in some leisurely exhibition games. A cycle of life restarts beneath cottonwool clouds in a soft, blue sky, a month of dreaming before the players migrate north for the real season and, who knows, a slot in the autumn play-offs, even the World Series. Such, however, is not the prevailing mood around the cosy Fort Lauderdale Stadium, "Spring Home of the Yankees", this March.

The Great Strike has just spawned its ugliest offspring yet. First, the players' walk-out of 12 August, eradicating the last 50 days of the regular season and the World Series itself, for the first time since 1904. Next, in December, the imposition by the owners of their threatened salary cap. Now, as talks fitfully proceed between the warring parties, phase three of what is surely the longest industrial dispute in sporting history - replacement baseball, more commonly called "scab-ball''.

There would be a 1995 season, proclaimed the owners when they announced the cap, come what may. Their Doomsday plan is now running. If there is no settlement, a selection of the 50-strong squad assembled here will do duty for the Yankees when regular games begin next month. And replacement players are not the end of it. As matters stand, there will be replacement umpires (the real ones are stuck in a separate pay dispute), replacement beer (the truckers' union is refusing to deliver to the ballparks) and even replacement pickets (the major-league players, fearing injury, will have stand-ins outside the stadiums if the pseudo-season starts).

Room still exists for a breakthrough. After months of talking past each other, the two sides are beginning to engage on the core issue of the salary cap. Above all, for the first time since the strike started seven months ago, each has reason to settle. The players, whose salaries are paid entirely during the playing season, are about to start losing serious money. So, too, will the owners if the stadiums are three-quarters empty and television companies abandon the sport to its fate.

Alas, logic has never had much to do with this self-inflicted shambles. "Just a few hundred folks tryin' to divvy up a coupla billion dollars," was President Clinton's folksy assessment of the quarrel. That, however, was just before he had them into the White House for three straight hours one evening last month, when even the authority of his office could not secure a square inch of common ground.

But then again, who should have expected otherwise? This is an Alice Through The Looking Glass of labour disputes, pitting workers who earn an average $1.2m (£736,000) a year, charge young kids $5 (£3) an autograph and yet portray themselves as 20th-century equivalents of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, against bosses who have happily bid salaries to these stratospheric levels and now seek rescue from their folly in an industry-wide payroll cap that would be illegal did not baseball enjoy its anti-trust exemption. Stir in the legacy of 100 years of greed, rancour and mutual resentment, and plainly this is a strike with a difference.

In fact, the first two exhibition games of the season in Fort Lauderdale were not that bad; some decent plays, some errors and half-way decent pitching. In short, presentable minor-league stuff. But the New York Yankees against the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Atlanta Braves, either of them a fair bet for the 1995 World Series ? No way. For the Yankees' Golden Gloves first baseman Don Mattingly, read Matt Stark, all 280 pounds or 20 stone of him, challenging a spectator who took loud note of one practice- game error to "Come on out here and play, meat." Not that large men havenot graced the Yankee pinstripes. Stark, in fact, is one of four Yankee replacements with major-league experience. But a Ruth or Mattingly he most certainly is not.

Across baseball, this is the spring of the absurd. The Baltimore Orioles owner, Peter Angelos, keen to preserve his star shortstop Cal Ripken's charge at Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive major league games (Ripken is 129 short) has broken ranks to refuse all truck with replacement baseball. His reward if the worst comes to the worst (and thus far it has done) could be a $250,000 fine per unplayed game, and theoretically the loss of his franchise. Sparky Anderson, doyen of today's major-league managers, has put himself on unpaid leave rather than handle a collection of no- hopers, has-beens and never-wozzers masquerading to be the Detroit Tigers.

But the Dodgers manager, Tommy Lasorda, is more forgiving. The Dodgers are guaranteeing minor leaguers in their organisation, normally paid $1,500 a month, a princely $7,000 a month for the season to be replacements, whether or not the strike ends. These are the real victims, caught in a conflict not of their making, "scabs'' for the millionaires' union, pawns for the billionaire owners. Now they are offered a few reasonable paydays and a last chance to make it in the majors. "Of course I want my players back," Lasorda says. "But it's unfair on these kids. We've had eight previous strikes in baseball history, and they've never asked minor leaguers not to play. These guys have to think about their livelihood, that's why they're playing. You can't hold any grudge against them.''

Indifference, though, is another matter. In the second innings against the Braves, the make-believe Yankees get a hit. BANG - BASEHIT, flashes the scoreboard. But from the 450 present in the 8,300-seat stadium only a deafening silence. This year, the rite of spring is a ghostly dance of the imagination. A foul ball crashes on the aluminium seats of a completely empty stand, sending a flock of roosting pigeons flying, like a gunshot in a cemetery. Last year was poised to be baseball's greatest in decades. If neither side budges, 1995 will be the farce of the century.

The fans (amazingly, baseball still seems to have them) blame owners and players in virtually equal measure. Two out of three, say the polls, approve of replacement players. The true test, however, is still a month off.

March's issue of the official Yankees magazine tacitly sets out the owners' gamble, not even mentioning the strike. So, take nine baseball second- raters, put them in pinstripes with numbers on their backs (though not 3, 4 or 5), have them run out on home Opening Day, and lo and behold, disbelief is suspended, you have got the New York Yankees. On 10 April, in Yankee Stadium, "The House that Ruth Built'', that could happen. If Fort Lauderdale is any guide, it will be a game no one can win.