Behold the joys of spring. Tulips in bloom. A fragrance of love on the soft breeze of evening. Arrival of the, uh, new Michael Jordan-model baseball bat.
And the spectacle of the grand old game's canny geniuses trying to replace everything they can replace without closing the place.
To begin with, there are...Replacement Players.
These are unquestionably the best athletes in the sport--as long as you don't count the 4,700 guys in the major and minor leagues. When last we checked, the New York Mets had on their scab roster a truck driver from the Bronx whose regular job is delivering refrigerators, and Willie Mays's legendary number 24 was being worn by--let's see here--Kirk Killingsworth. The Cincinnati Reds have re-signed former ace Pedro Borbon, who is 48 and hasn't pitched in fifteen years, and Ted Williams was vying for a spot with Pittsburgh. No, not that Ted Williams. This one is a 30-year-old outfielder who hit .248 last year in the Northern League and has toiled nine seasons in the low minors without a single call-up.
If Bob Gebhard has a brain in his head, he'll sign Roger Daltrey to fill in for Andres Galarraga--so at least part of the Who's on first. And he'll get Klondike and Snow into Colorado Rockies pinstripes as soon as possible; they're a lot more popular these days than designated loudmouth Joe "5.5 Homers a Year" Girardi. Meanwhile, down in Tucson, the 5,000-man Rockies spring training roster already features former Cubs outfielder Ced Landrum, whose chief virtue is that he will be able to outrun any angry union member chasing him in a Ferrari. The Rox also have pitchers Jeff Sellers and David Tellers, as well as catcher Jeff Twist and outfielder Lew List. And with a little luck, the Opening Day starter could be someone named Ken Grundt.
But even if it's Jim Hunter--no, not that Jim Hunter--the balls and strikes will likely be called by...Replacement Umpires.
While the players' strike dragged on through last fall and winter, hardly anyone noticed that major-league umpires got locked out when their four-year labor agreement expired December 31st. Spring training fill-ins have been drawn, appropriately enough to the occasion, from college and high school leagues. Minor-league umps usually work major-league exhibition games, but no one wants to compromise them this year while the union tiff continues. So don't be surprised if you see Ray Charles or George Shearing dressed all in blue and hunkered down behind the plate at Coors Field.
Meanwhile, after seven months of fiddling, posing and threatening each other, players and owners have made little progress toward a settlement. And that will mean the advent of...Replacement Pickets.
Don't expect Barry Bonds's stretch Mercedes to pull up in front of Candlestick Park and the outfielder to alight carrying a strike placard. In New York, Don Mattingly will probably walk the line the same day the Titanic arrives in port. Citing "security concerns," members of the Major League Baseball Players Association--America's richest union--are hiring pickets to do their marching for them. Why not? You wouldn't want Cecil Fielder to wrinkle his $2,500 Armani suit out there in the humidity, would you? And God forbid that David Cone miss a round of golf. Let the little guys do the scut work, baseball's able-bodied millionaires are saying. What kind of low-life trash do you think we are, anyway--teachers?
Watching bad players kick easy grounders all over the field while bad umps miss half the calls will probably make you thirsty. Time to hit the concession stand and order a nice, tall, frosty, foamy...Replacement Beer.
Eager to show solidarity with their struggling brethren in the baseball players' union, the Teamsters--you know, Jimmy Hoffa's old outfit--are saying their drivers won't deliver beer to the major-league ballparks until the strike is settled. Talk about the unkindest cut of all: That means you may not get to stand in a twenty-minute line this April for the privilege of forking out four or five bucks for a cup of something warm and flat. That presupposes, of course, that you've passed muster with the sneering little Napoleon demanding to look at your ID--even though you fought in World War II. Not to worry: This spring, you'll get to stand in a twenty-minute line waiting for weak lemonade--unless, of course, you hire a Replacement.
Up in the Bronx, George Steinbrenner has really caught the spirit of the moment. He's installed troubled ex-pitcher Steve Howe, who's been busted more times than Billie Holiday, as baseball's first Replacement Ticket Seller. In Detroit, the Tigers are shopping for a Replacement Manager, because the venerable Sparky Anderson refuses to play ball with scabs. Here in Denver, the Rockies must be thinking about a Replacement Partner. Because uranium king Oren Benton is broke. Milwaukee's Bud "Light" Selig, the game's Replacement Commissioner, is making evil noises at Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos for canceling the club's entire spring training schedule. In Babe Ruth's hometown, there's even been talk of a...Replacement Franchise.
If you look at it, the only replacement concept not being discussed very much this spring is the most important one of all--and the only one over which you and I have any control. While Replacement Pickets trudge through the parking lots and Replacement Players try to figure out Watt's on second (no, not that Watt--Tom Watt, in camp with the Phils), and while Replacement Enthusiasms inexorably shove aside old, deep affections for the game...while all that's happening, it's about time to tell the lords of baseball, in no uncertain terms, to go out for the next ten years or so and dig up some Replacement Fans.
On a happier note, it comes as no surprise that Ceal Barry's exemplary hoopsters have again cloaked the University of Colorado in glory. The Lady Buffs--oops, can't call Stanford the Indians anymore, either... that is to say, the undefeated Buffs have collected more trophies than a bowling team this season, led by senior guard Shelley Sheetz, who was named Big Eight Player of the Year, and Barry, the Big Eight Coach of 1995.
The Big Dance could be quite a story later this month. Forget that touchdown pass in Ann Arbor: We're talking top of the heap here.
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And whoa! How about the boys? Joe Harrington's hapless CU bunch, long overshadowed by their female counterparts, not only won a conference road game for the first time since the Punic Wars (at Nebraska), they knocked off nineteenth-ranked Mizzou last week. That gave CU's men just their second winning season in eleven years and may have landed them a spot in the National Invitational Tournament.
That hasn't happened since 1991. The time before that, well, the time before that, Dad was digging on Janis in the glow of the lava lamp.
The CU women deserve the whole thing, and they can get it. As for the men, let's just hope Northwest Montana A&T doesn't crush 'em in the first round.