Tales of Replacement Players: The Best Shot at Big Leagues

JUST two weeks ago they were shoe salesmen, teachers, and hawkers of office equipment who only dreamed of playing Major League Baseball. Today, at spring training camps across Florida, these replacement players are getting a shot at a baseball career.

Chris Marchok has taken a leave from his job as a school headmaster in Pennsylvania to try to earn a spot on the Florida Marlins. Mr. Marchok and others have been brought in by major-league owners to take the field in the event the six-month-old labor dispute with the regular players continues into the 1995 season.

``I love the game. I love the competition,'' says Marchok, a Harvard University graduate who has put his life on hold to pursue an elusive dream. ``I love the thrill of being out on the mound with runners on base and the game on the line.''

The replacements are mostly former minor leaguers who left professional baseball - because of injuries, or age, or because they were simply cut. However, almost all of them are here to fulfill a previously elusive dream.

It's a dream that began for some last night with the first preseason game in Tempe, Ariz., between the California Angels and Arizona State University - the first game to use replacements since 1912.

Blase Kozeniewski has been in the New York Yankees' minor-league system for a number of years, and views the strike as an opportunity for him to advance his career.

``The coaches called me up and said we'd like to see your stuff,'' says the 25-year-old pitcher. ``I jumped at the chance and hopefully I'll get my foot in the door.''

While no owner is pleased with the prospect of fielding second-rate players in big-league ballparks, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner believes some players training at his team's Ft. Lauderdale facility show big-league promise.

``We could have some real surprises for the fans,'' says Mr. Steinbrenner, ``There might be some future star out there.''

But while some players dream of being stars, others dream of the larger salaries. Should the strike continue into the regular season, some of the replacement players could make the team and potentially earn $115,000.

``I know what it's like to be making between $35,000 and $45,000 a year in the real world - to wake up in the morning and get yourself motivated,'' says catcher Juan Velazquez, who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1982 and now sells office equipment.

Of the regular players, he says, ``Maybe those guys had it too good for too long.''

BUT the replacements know their shots at the good life could end abruptly. Every day Yankee replacements read the paper to see if there are any new developments in the baseball strike.

Mike Pitz, a studious-looking pitcher who last played in Taiwan, left his job as a sales representative at a liquor and wine company to wear the Yankees' pinstripes.

``Right now, I'm just taking it one day at a time - I'm enjoying myself,'' says Mr. Pitz. ``I'm doing something I love to do, down here in Florida, and out of the cold.''

It's still not known if these replacement players will be playing quality baseball. Yankees manager Buck Showalter admits that none of the players would have made the club in 1994, but says he's not embarrassed by his replacement team.

Steinbrenner adds, ``I'm a little embarrassed for the fans that we couldn't get this settled.'' And of the 1995 season he says, ``It may not be the way it ought to be, but it's going to be a good product.''

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