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Updated: March 1st, 2013 6:07am
Reusse's Reality from Florida: Replacement Ball

Reusse's Reality from Florida: Replacement Ball

by Patrick Reusse
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FORT MYERS _ Sunday will be the 18th anniversary of the Twins' first replacement game. The Twins will make a short drive north on Interstate 75 to Port Charlotte for an exhibition game with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Twins made a longer trip north _ to Bradenton _ on March 3, 1995, to formally unveil their collection of intended strike-breakers vs. Pittsburgh's.

Manager Tom Kelly was already agitated at the prospect of putting these ragamuffins in big-league uniforms, and then I-75 turned into the nightmare it can be on occasion.

The team bus, with Kelly, his staff and 23 of the Twins' 44 nominated replacements, encountered two massive traffic jams, adding an hour to the trip. When the bus finally reached McKechnie Field, one of the first people Kelly encountered was Dick Vitale, spouting as always.

Vitale was a regular at Pirates' exhibitions when not off making noise in college basketball arenas.

Kelly listened to Vitale for 30 seconds and that was it. "I told him I had something to do,'' the Twins manager said. "I don't need that ... not today.''

I was having a pregame conversation with Kelly when infielder Joey Aragon, a short guy in his 30s, walked by. He was a former Twins farmhand and Kelly was asked if he had managed Aragon in the minor leagues.

"I managed him,'' Kelly said. "He always had ice packs. I saw him in the clubhouse the other day, wearing the ice. I thought, 'Ice. Now I remember him.' ''

Managers, coaches and officials from all teams had been warned by the MLB honchos not to direct ridicule at the replacements. Kelly was doing his best not to cross the line, even though he had been fuming for three weeks of workouts over the fiasco that he knew was in the offing when the exhibitions started.

The battle between owners and the MLB Players Association that time was over a salary cap. The players had gone on strike after the games of Aug. 11, 1994, a work stoppage that eventually cancelled the rest of the season and playoffs. The World Series was not played for the first time in 90 years.

In the run-up to 1995 spring training, the owners voted 25-3 to implement a salary cap, and later said they were "committed'' to playing the season with the best players available.

The Players Association was always a couple of steps ahead of the owners in those days and one example was this: The union had gone to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and was able to get a ruling that foreign players would have their visas revoked if they played in games during the strike.

Behind the scenes, the owners had been counting on being able to use many Latin American veterans who had been stuck in the minors or were recently without a baseball job to fill out the rosters.

When teams didn't have that option, they were stuck with U.S. citizens from independent leagues, retired lists or, in the Twins' case, a few from town-team ball back in Minnesota.

The Twins beat Pittsburgh 6-4 in that first replacement game. The most-notable hit was a double from Jay Kvasnicka, mostly because the line drive sounded as if it came off the bat of a real ballplayer.

Kvasnicka, a former outfielder in the Twins' system, had not played a game since September 1992. He finished that season at Class AA Orlando.

"I wasn't going to be moving up to triple-A, and Marty Cordova and Rich Becker were catching me,'' Kvasnicka said. "I had an agreement with my wife: If we were going up, I would keep playing. If we were going down, I would quit.''

Jay's son Mike would become a star at Lakeville North, then a standout for the Gophers. He was drafted 33rd overall in 2010 and received a $936,000 bonus from the Houston Astros.

Mike has played outfield and done some catching in Houston's system. He showed power with 15 home runs and 53 RBIs in 86 Class A games last season.

His father and the other replacements in the spring of 1995 received $5,000 to sign for spring training, and would get another bonus of $5,000 if they made the opening day roster.

Replacement ball never made it that far. On March 31, Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the Second District Court of Appeals saved MLB from itself, issuing a preliminary injunction against the owners that basically upheld an unfair labor charge.

The owners gave up and the strike ended on April 2, one day before the season had been scheduled to start. The real players then came to spring training and a shortened season _ from 162 games to 144 _ started at the end of the month.

An enormous wave of salary inflation hit baseball after the owners' failed attempt to finally get a big victory over the players' union. Commissioner Bud Selig now brags about nearly two decades of labor peace _ without mentioning that the main reason for this is that the owners have never again attempted to implement a salary cap.

That exists in the NFL, NBA and NHL, but Selig has concentrated on implementing larger amounts of revenue sharing to keep some measure of competitive balance.

As for the replacements, one fellow who still can feel it in his right foot is Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. He was the third-base coach on that March day in Bradenton 18 years ago.

Gardenhire was moving down the line, trying to decide whether to send one of the replacements home on a base hit to the outfield. Jim Boudreau, the Pirates pitcher, was running to cover a base and collided with Gardenhire, rupturing the Achilles tendon in Gardy's right foot and causing him to miss several weeks of the season.

"It wasn't the pitcher's fault; it was baseball,'' Gardenhire said that day, kindly.

It was sort of baseball ... and something the owners don't figure to try again if they ever get back to battling with the players union.

Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He co-hosts SportsTalk from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. and hosts The Ride with Reusse from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. He also co-hosts "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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In this story: Ron Gardenhire