Twenty years later, players recall “replacement” spring training

 

The players who represented the Cardinals in spring training in 1995 were not household names or faces. (St. Louis Cardinals archives)

By Rob Rains

The names that filled the box score of the Cardinals’ first spring training game in 1995 have long since faded from memory. On March 4, 1995, the Cardinals began the spring by beating the Cleveland Indians 4-2 at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla., with Mike Hinkle as the starting pitcher and Doug Radziewicz driving in the winning run as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning.

Others who wore the Cardinals uniform that day included John “Skeets” Thomas, Howard Prager, Steve Biermann, Scott Bethea, Joe Jumonville, Ty Griffin and Larry Shikles – none of them household names.

Twenty years later, all of those players and the others who spent that month wearing the Cardinals uniform are remembered only in one collective term – they were the “replacement” players who took the field for the exhibition games in place of the major-league regulars who were still on strike from the previous summer.

None of those players had any illusion that they were as good as the players who were on strike, but they did have one common bond – a love of the game and a desire to play it as long as possible.

Many were players who were already in the Cardinals’ farm system, but with no real hope of one day playing in the major leagues. Others came from other teams through one connection or another. Mike Jorgensen, then the Cardinals’ director of player development, was in charge of trying to find players for manager Joe Torre, GM Walt Jocketty and the coaches to choose from as they tried to field a competitive team.

“It was very difficult putting the team together,” Jorgensen recalled. “We had to be careful of guys’ careers and I purposely did not want to force anybody to do that. Having been a member of the player’s association, and a player rep at one point, in the long run I knew it might not be a good thing for their careers if they ever made it to the big leagues.

“At the same point we were putting a team together, and we were expected to win by August Busch. That was a little conflicting to say the least.”

So Jorgensen made phone calls and worked his connections, never really expecting the arrangement to last for more than a few days.

“They (the players) were made aware of everything before they came on board,” Jorgensen said. “We gave them an opportunity to be big leaguers. We had one guy in our system, who was not part of this thing, a pitcher named Matt Kinzer who later did pitch in the big leagues. He had been a replacement punter in the NFL for the Detroit Lions. We talked about how difficult that situation was.”

Each player who signed a contract was to get $5,000 for signing, with another $5,000 due if he made the opening day roster. If regular-season games were played, each player was to receive another $20,000. Those salaries were mandated by major league baseball.

For players who knew it was a one-time shot, the money was a nice incentive. In reality, however, nobody – not the players, not the front-office personnel, managers, coaches or fans – knew what to expect or how long it would last.

“I think some of the expectations that the people had who were involved in the whole thing was that the product was going to be better than it really was,” Jorgensen said. “I don’t think it would have been acceptable in big league stadiums for any length of time.

“The way I compare it is like there is a difference between a playoff game in the majors and a game in July between two poor teams. The ball doesn’t move as fast. There’s not the quickness to the game, the sharpness to the game that there is when you get to the higher levels. I think it probably was about a high A level overall.”

As the exhibition season continued, the Cardinals and other teams had to more seriously consider the possibility that the regular-season could begin with the replacement players. The schedule called for the Cardinals to open the season at home on Monday April 3 against the Phillies.

They played their final game of the spring on April 1, losing 4-3 to the White Sox in front of 747 people at Al Lang Stadium – 2,000 less than had attended the first game almost a month earlier. Many of the names had changed over the course of the exhibition season, as the Cardinals settled on the 30 players who would go north the following day.

Before the plane could leave for St. Louis, however, the word came that the regular players had ended the strike and the owners had agreed to the players’ demands. Just as the first in-season game was about to be played, the replacement era was over.

For the players who had agreed to play – some for the money, some just for the thrill of being able to say they were major leaguers – the news was depressing. At least the players on the Cardinals spirits were brightened when they found out Busch was still going to pay all of them the extra $20,000, even though there had been no regular-season games.

In addition, Busch told Jorgensen that he wanted all of those who chose to continue to play to have a job somewhere in the organization. This came just days before the minor league teams were set to open their own seasons.

“Mr. Busch was one of the leaders trying to get the thing done and he appreciated what they (the players) had done,” said Jorgensen, now a special assistant to GM John Mozeliak. “He told me he wanted them to have a job in the organization if they wanted it. It kind of threw everything into total chaos.

“The period between that Sunday and Thursday when the minor league teams broke camp I don’t think I slept for more than an hour or two a night because I was trying to accommodate these guys and not offend or hurt anybody who was already in our system. We achieved it but it was very difficult.”

Jorgensen found jobs for most of the players in the system, and loaned a few to other teams. A few others went ahead and retired. None of the players on that Cardinals squad ever reached the major leagues, but they had memories which would last forever.

Many have remained connected to the game 20 years later. Tony Diggs, an outfielder, is a manager in the Brewers’ farm system. Griffin, a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, is a high school coach in Tampa. Glenn Sutko, a catcher involved in the first trade of replacement players, runs a travel program for youth players in Atlanta.

“Everybody who puts on a uniform dreams of playing in the major leagues from the time you were a kid,” Jorgensen said. “This was probably the best chance a lot of them had. They would have an asterisk besides their name, but they would have been major leaguers. I can understand why a lot of them did that.”

Here are the stories of three who did:

Doug Radziewicz

A 48th-round pick by the Cardinals in the 1991 draft out of the University of Georgia, Radziewicz was a left-handed hitting first baseman who hit .342 to win the Florida State League batting title in 1993.

He was promoted to Double A Arkansas in 1994, but was used mostly as a reserve outfielder, and quickly agreed to play when Jorgensen called.

“When the major league players went on strike the phrase I remember I kept hearing over and over was that ‘we are protecting the players for the future of the game,’ Radziewicz said in a telephone interview from his home in New Jersey. “The more that sat with me, the way conditions were and really still are for minor-league players, I thought I couldn’t side with those people.

“I was in Double A earning $1,500 a month before taxes and getting $13 a day meal money on the road, when $3 went to clubhouse dues. You had $10 left to cover two meals. It just didn’t sit well with me.”

What Radziewicz found when he arrived in St. Petersburg was one of the most enjoyable experiences of his baseball life.

“I think we were pretty skeptical going in,” he said. “We didn’t know if the coaching staff was going to give us the time of day or if they were going to stay loyal to the regular players and not work with us. But I learned more that spring from guys like Torre and Chris Chambliss, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, than I had in four previous years in the organization, stuff I still use today.”

The 25-year-old Radziewicz led the Cardinals with a .370 average in the spring, and earned what he still considers one of the greatest compliments he ever received, courtesy of Torre.

“He told me I had a major league swing but what I didn’t have was a major-league knowledge of the strike zone,” Radziewicz said. “There’s no way he was going to lie to me, why would he? The experience with him and the coaching staff in general was just tremendous.

“I had a good spring. It was a little bit of a reassurance that I could still play.”

When he agreed to play, Radziewicz had decided that whenever it was over, he was going to retire and look to begin a career in coaching, with a desire to become a college head coach. Chambliss, however, talked him into going back to Double A, where he stayed for a couple of months before he knew it was time to move on with his life.

He has been a coach at the high school and small college level and is currently an assistant coach at Montgomery High School in Somerville, N.J., where he also teaches choral music.

The biggest surprise Radziewicz received came when he got the bonus check from the Cardinals.

“It was an absolute shock when we got the money, none of us were expecting that,” Radziewicz said. “When the strike was settled we were like, ‘OK, it was money we never had.’ I was in Little Rock at some local dive burger joint trying to get the most food I could for five bucks and one of the pitchers came over and said they were giving us the full bonus. I used 75 percent of the money for the down payment on my first house when I got married.

“It would have been an interesting experience alone and would have been worth it, but to get more money than I ever saw in five years with the organization, I can’t speak for everybody, but I was so grateful.”

Radziewicz still has a photo from that spring of himself with Torre and longtime Cardinal minor league director George Kissell. He also is quick to tell his current players the baserunning advice he received from Brock.

“We always talked around the cage in batting practice or on the bus rides about what a great experience it was, about how much these guys know,” Radziewicz said. “Lou Brock helped me work on my jump around first base. He insisted on being called Lou and I was like ‘no, it’s Mr. Brock, Mr. Gibson, Mr. Torre’. I told him he was barking down the wrong tree. We all knew other guys were major leaguers for a reason.

“But they treated us like human beings, like men. I still use those baserunning drills with our players and I tell them I am teaching them stuff I learned from Lou Brock. I tell them, ‘if it was good enough for Lou Brock, it’s good enough for you.’

“I absolutely have no regrets. I can’t change what people think about that group of people, but I felt like it was worth it for a number of reasons.”

Larry Shikles

Shikles, a right-handed pitcher, took a little different route to becoming a replacement player than Radziewicz.

He already had moved into the business world after eight years in the minors, mostly in the Red Sox system. He was working as a financial adviser for Smith Barney, his office a short walk from Busch Stadium, when he got a phone call from Jocketty. Shikles’ last minor-league season was in 1993 in Tacoma, the Triple A club of the Oakland A’s, where Jocketty had worked before being hired by the Cardinals.

“He explained what was going on,” Shikles said. “I didn’t know … it was a big risk for me to leave my business when I was just getting engaged to go to spring training for a couple of months, but I was able to convince my branch manager it was a great idea.

“I had gone to big league spring training with Detroit in 1994 hoping to either make the club or have them release me. I was going on 30 years old and my wife was pregnant and I was really at the make it or break it point. They probably did me a favor by releasing me and in June I started at Smith Barney.”

Then came the call from Jocketty, scratching his itch to pitch once more.

“It was such an unusual period for me, an end of my career that I didn’t really expect,” Shikles said.

An added complication for Shikles’ decision was when Jocketty called, he was in the middle of trying to sign some of his former teammates in the minors, players like Curt Schilling and John Flaherty, as new clients.

“I called them and told them I had been invited to play and they were very gracious and said if I could do it and make some money to do it,” Shikles said. “They said I was not going to solve the union-owners issues at this point and to go down and have fun and that’s what I did. It was like a six-week fantasy camp.

“It was probably the most relaxed spring training I had ever been in because there was no risk. I wasn’t trying to make a team. I knew I had the most experience of anybody down there, and I knew if they actually fielded a team I would be a part of it.”

Like most of his teammates, Shikles didn’t really think as the camp opened that there was much of a chance of that actually happening. The closer it got to the start of the regular season, however, he realized it was possible. Shikles was scheduled to start the second game of the season.

Before that, he was having a conversation over lunch at Al Lang Stadium with Stan Musial and Jack Buck, and Buck was trying to figure out how he was going to get his car back to St. Louis.

“I told him if he could talk Walt Jocketty into letting me do it, I would drive his car home,” Shikles said. “I said ‘my wife is pregnant, I haven’t seen her in six weeks, I would be happy to do it.’ Walt came up to me about two hours later and asked if I was serious. I told him I wasn’t going to pitch anymore, I had all my work in, and he said if that was what I wanted to do I could leave after the workout the next day.

“I was driving Jack’s car through Atlanta and had the radio on when I heard the announcement that the players and owners had settled the strike. It was late at night, and I kind of pulled over and reflected, kind of bummed out. A little part of me said it would have been great to walk across Market St. from my office at least one time and to put on a uniform and play at Busch Stadium, primarily for bragging rights in the office.”

It turned out to be a good spring financially for Shikles. In addition to getting the bonus money from the Cardinals he got a surprise check from the Topps baseball card company.

“I was in the outfield one day during BP talking to another pitcher, Mike Hinkle,” Shikles said. “We had both been part of the 1990 Topps set and as minor leaguers we got a check for like $600 or $700. The big league guys got like $10,000 or $15,000. A couple of minor league guys had sued Topps over the years and they had settled so each minor leaguer who was in the set was to get $7,500. I had no clue but Mike said Topps had found him that morning.

“I called the guy when I got back to the hotel and he said, ‘Oh we’ve been trying to find you’ and I said, ‘we’ll you haven’t tried very hard.’ They sent me the check. so between that and what the Cardinals did, it was a pretty profitable couple of months for me.”

The time away did not hurt Shikles in the business world either. He later moved to Morgan Stanley, where he worked for several years, and just recently he and partner Scott Highmark, the former Saint Louis University basketball star, formed a new company, Mosaic Family Wealth.

“The game was great for me, even that replacement spring training was a lot of fun,” Shikles said. “I don’t know if I would do it again, primarily because I didn’t get a lot of backlash but it probably did affect my business for four or five months. I had to get back in the swing of growing a business with Smith Barney. I thought if I got a little publicity it would help me out but it didn’t materialize in a lot of clients.

“I have been totally blessed. I’m sure my branch manager at the time was going, ‘I paid a lot of money to get this guy trained and in the process of producing for the firm and he’s going to take a two-month sabbatical.’ But it ended up working out great. I have a lot of fond memories.”

Mike Hinkle

Hinkle was a day away from becoming the answer to a trivia question when the strike ended. He was scheduled to start the season-opener for the Cardinals against the Phillies, just as he had started the exhibition opener.

Hinkle, a 24th-round pick by the Cardinals out of Kansas State in 1987, reached Triple A in 1990 but remained there through 1992. He had been released in spring training in 1993 and went to play in Italy. Like Shikles he had begun working in the financial industry for an investment firm, as an accountant, in Kansas City when the phone call came to see if he would be interested in being a replacement player.

“I was interested right away,” Hinkle said. “I was married but luckily didn’t have any kids yet. When I left the game it wasn’t really on my terms and I was coming off an injury. I kind of felt I needed some closure, and I was healthy enough to compete again.”

Hinkles went into the experience with realistic expectations, which is one of the reasons he thought it was so enjoyable.

“We weren’t down there trying to replace the big league players,” Hinkle said. “We were filling a void, doing something we all loved to do. Did we want to extend it into the season? Of course we did. Who wouldn’t want to play baseball instead of sitting in an office crunching numbers or whatever it was people did?

“Getting paid to play baseball at any level is a good thing. I felt they respected and honored the things that we did. The Cardinals handled everything so professionally.”

Hinkle had prepared himself for the opening day assignment, even to the point of planning to bring his own personal cheering section to Busch Stadium.

“I had folks back home who were going to come check it out,” he said. “Opening day was going to be pretty fun. There was mild disappointment it was over.”

About the only part of the experience which Hinkle did not appreciate was the reaction in some sections of the media, who were siding with the striking players against the owners.

Being in that spring training, playing baseball, was not about choosing sides for the players involved, Hinkle said.

“I don’t think any of us were down there for any other reason other than the love of the game,” he said. “Most people had a pretty good reality check. Even if we had started the season, playing in big league venues with big league staffs, none of us had a fantasy that we were replacing big league ballplayers.

“We were all minor league players. We didn’t make it to the majors for one reason or another. This was just another chance to play. For the few who thought maybe their careers weren’t over, it was another chance to get back in the game.”

Hinkle actually turned down an offer to stay in the system as a coach when the strike ended, returning to his job in Kansas City, where he now works on the legal-compliance side of the financial industry, for American Century Investments.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years,” he said.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

About stlsportspage 180 Articles
For the latest news and features in St. Louis Sports check out STLSportsPage.com. Rob Rains, Editor.

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