By Jonathan Zeller
They were landscapers, truck drivers and special-education teachers. They couldn't buy a hit and made 20 errors in their first nine games. Their own manager openly insulted their abilities.
But for one spring, they were technically major leaguers.
The players' union was on strike in the spring of 1995 -- fighting against owners' proposal to institute a salary cap -- and the Mets, like every major league club except the Orioles, fielded a replacement team, one that ended up playing the whole exhibition schedule. To cross the line was to brand oneself a traitor in the eyes of many union members; in 1997, for example, Rick Reed -- who played in spring training games with the Reds during the strike -- still faced teammates who refused to speak to him when he first made the Mets' rotation.
Not many fans or baseball insiders remember that spring training fondly, but it brought renewed hope for the career minor leaguers, retired veterans and never-got-a-shot non-prospects known as replacement players. These guys, who couldn't have hoped to reach the major leagues a few months earlier, donned Mets jerseys, took instruction from manager Dallas Green, and had their games broadcast on WWOR by Ralph Kiner, Tim McCarver and Gary Thorne.
The "ReplaceMets," as the tabloids called them, struggled on the field even against other replacement squads. They started 0-9, a stretch that included a no-hitter at the hands of the Braves. They didn't hit a home run until the ninth game of the season and batted a paltry .216.
Regardless, for many of the players, those weeks were among the most memorable of their lives, and they were glad to share their stories from the spring of 1995. Said then-third baseman and current police officer Todd Whitehurst, "we're talking about history here."
* * *
Bubba Wagnon and Chris Walpole played for pride.
After a college career at Montevallo University, during which he'd competed against closer Todd Jones and alongside outfielder Rusty Greer, Wagnon had gone undrafted and spent half a decade out of the game, but still yearned for a shot at the bigs. He left his job at B&B Landscaping, which he ran with a close friend -- also a baseball player, also called Bubba -- and drove down from Birmingham, Ala., to Port St. Lucie for a tryout. "My thoughts," he said, "were 'I don't really give a s---. I'm going to go down there and play my a-- off, hustle my a-- off and play the way I've been taught. If they like me, they like me. If they tell me to go home, I'll drive right back home.' It was almost no pressure. Like a free pop, you know?"
Despite his fair share of mishaps -- including somehow getting picked off twice in one inning during an intraquad game with modified rules -- Wagnon lasted most of the spring. For a moment, he says, "I was a celebrity, man." He appeared in a segment on Late Night with Conan O'Brien; girls in the live studio audience hooted and hollered when he showed up on screen. "I guess they thought I was a nice-looking guy," he reasons in his southern drawl.
(By the way, if anyone has footage of Wagnon's appearances on Conan or on the air with Fran Healy from that spring, drop us a line; he'd love to see them.)
Fans and the press took to Wagnon as a symbol of the replacement team for his Southern accent, working-class background and hustle. "They had a big time with me," he said. "This redneck from Alabama getting out here running around like a chicken with his head cut off." Wagnon didn't mind the attention: "I ate it up… not that I was the best player out there, but I was the one they wanted to talk to."
Wagnon's playing time dwindled when the Mets brought in minor-league players and turned things around after their dismal start. "I got relegated to pinch running," he said, "some defensive replacement stuff."
But Wagnon didn't leave empty-handed when he was released on March 28. He took home "a big old Mets' catchers' bag" filled with gear and a sense he measured up as a pro: "when I went down there during that whole spring and competed with a heck of a lot of good baseball players, it was almost like a chip was removed [from my shoulder]," he said. "I was going, dang, if I could've gotten this" -- meaning major league coaching -- "right out of college, spent five years getting better, who knows?"
Wagnon still plays in an adult league in Birmingham, and is proud of his small piece of Mets history.
* * *
Walpole, who'd gone undrafted after his career at Mercy College, said: "I felt I got screwed" by never having a chance to play in the pros. So when the opportunity presented itself, he paved his path to Port St. Lucie with some creative résumé writing.
Like Bobby Bonilla, whose number 25 he wore, Walpole was born and raised in the Bronx, and with characteristic New York boldness, he embraces the chance to retell his youthful exploits.
"This is the days before the internet, you understand," Walpole said. Under the impression that the Mets only wanted replacement players with pro experience, Walpole told the Mets about his 25-game career with the Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks.
The only problem was, said career never happened.
Without Google, it took the Mets weeks to figure out Walpole had employed the George Costanza method of career advancement. By then, he was entrenched: "I was playing third base and batting fifth in the lineup."
The New York City special-education teacher found himself playing in the Mets' televised spring-training opener against the Bronx Bombers … or at least players wearing their jerseys. "I had a bunch of friends who used to rent a house in Hunter Mountain every year," he said. "They were all around the TV, watching the game, psyched out of their minds that someone they knew was playing for the Mets on TV against the Yankees."
Yet as quickly as he'd gotten himself into a Mets uniform, Walpole soon cast it aside. He'd left his steady gig at Truman High School in the Bronx to try out for the team, and began to worry there'd be no job waiting if the strike ended.
"I was running out of days, to be honest," he explained. "It didn't look great for me. So rather than be released and lose my job, I went back to my job." It's hard to argue Walpole would have been better off sticking with the Mets -- the strike didn't last through Opening Day, and he's still teaching almost two decades later.
Walpole's decision to leave came five games into the spring, and without much warning. But he made no apologies for how his time unfolded, even when Mets executive Gerry Hunsicker criticized him for fabricating pro experience. "He gives me a scolding," said Walpole, "like, how dare I?"
Hunsicker, currently working with the Los Angeles Dodgers, says he remembers neither the conversation nor the player. Walpole, though, has a clear recollection of his reply: "I said, 'I wanted a shot to play… I don't really care about your opinion of me.' I did what I had to do and that was that."
* * *
Todd Whitehurst played for cold, hard cash.
"I [was] trying to survive," Whitehurst said. In 1990, when he signed with the Indians' organization, he only received money for college. "I didn't even know how to negotiate. You show up for your first couple of weeks, and everyone's talking about 'how much money did you get?' And I'm like, 'I didn't get anything.'"
By 1995, he said, "I didn't have any money. I didn't have a car… I remember going to Florida with $100 in my pocket." He lived out of duffel bags and crashed on friends' couches.
"There are a lot of minor leaguers," Whitehurst said, "who will go through the system, but they have that family support." Neither of his parents, who had divorced, were willing to let him stay with them while he played in the minors, adding to the financial pressure of a meager salary and about $10 of daily meal money.
It was against this backdrop that the Mets, looking to improve by adding minor leaguers to a hapless replacement squad, offered Whitehurst a $5,000 bonus and, if the season went on with replacements, six figures. He explains: "I'm thinking I can play the season and then take care of myself in the offseason by buying [a home]."
Union players warned Whitehurst that he'd be blackballed if he were to cross the line -- but he needed money, and as he saw it, other players weren't paying. The team was.
"The problem," he said, "is that nobody is stepping up and putting out money saying, 'hey, if you don't play, we'll give you the $5,000 -- everybody on this team will give you money.' And part of the problem is there's no union in the minor leagues."
To describe his experience once he suited up as a replacement, Whitehurst paraphrases Dickens: "It was a fun time and it wasn't a fun time."
He drove in the winning run in his second game, the Mets' first victory of the spring, and got a taste of the big-league life. The clubhouse was unlike anything he'd experienced in the minors: "your shoes are polished. Everything is organized and put away. There's food on the table. There's bubblegum … everything a player would need, from milk to protein to beer to water to coffee." The perks left Whitehurst hoping veterans knew how good they had it. "Any player who goes up there and plays in the big leagues and doesn't appreciate it," he said, "there's something wrong -- because you're given everything."
* * *
Doug Sisk, believe it or not, played for principle.
The players' union was using licensing revenues withheld during previous seasons to assist striking players, and the famed reliever from the 1986 Mets -- who had made his last MLB appearance in 1991 -- felt it was unfair he hadn't seen a share of that money.
"What about us guys who retired and we've gotten out the game, and we're opening up a business or living a different lifestyle now?" Sisk said. "I have [money] that I can't touch because they're going to take care of the active players who are making a heck of a lot more than I did when I played. And I don't think that's right." Sisk, who was running an indoor sports facility in his native Washington at the time, said it wasn't that he needed the money. He just wanted to send a message.
"It was all to make a point," Sisk says of the journey that led to his starting the Mets' 1995 spring training opener against the Yankees, three full seasons after his retirement. Sisk says general manager Joe McIlvaine urged caution -- "are you sure you want to do this?" he remembers being asked. "Because there could be repercussions."
Sisk was not fazed. "I said, 'no, I'm sure. I'm doing it for my own reasons.' I'm not doing it to make a team. I'm not doing it to show that I can still play. I'm doing it because I feel bad [about the way the players' union is treating retired players.]"
He is emphatic he had no interest in playing once the union players returned, though. So sure was Sisk of the stigma a replacement player would face in a post-strike locker room, he advised minor leaguers not to cross the line. "It's not your battle, it's mine," he said.
As it turned out, Sisk's stint in Port St. Lucie was even shorter and less glamorous than he might have imagined. "At the first pitch [of the opener], I started feeling some burning in my rotator cuff," he said. He finished two innings, but never returned to the mound.
Despite the frustrating end to his pitching days -- he still can't sleep on his right arm -- Sisk remembers the experience of playing in 1995 fondly. He enjoyed the company of enthusiastic players like Wagnon, Bronx truck driver Alex Coghen and others. "They're all good kids," he said. "It was no different to me than one of [the] fantasy camps that the Mets run, [except] it was more serious."
And no matter what point Sisk was making in 1995, there's no denying he also wanted a chance to play again. "I would have loved to play under different circumstances a little bit longer," he said of the injuries that made it impossible to continue, "but I couldn't. They basically just yanked the uniform off me, and that was the end of it."
* * *
On April 1, the Mets played a final exhibition at Jacobs Field against the Indians. Fred Wilpon told the New York Times that sending replacements to play at an MLB park was "a way of saying thank you," and he was optimistic for the union players to start the regular season -- but Whitehurst said the replacements believed they could play on Opening Day against the Marlins.
The Cleveland game was a dream come true. "You're thinking, wow, this is what it feels like," Whitehurst said of walking onto the field to start at third base. "The fans on third for Cleveland, they're yelling obscenities at you, doing all that. I think I got pulled in the eighth or ninth inning of that game, and someone else came in to play third base. He made an error, I think it was on a pop fly. He dropped it, and the next thing you know, there are like 15 guys -- you know, they've been drinking beer -- and they're chanting 'we want Todd! We want Todd!'"
It didn't take long for the mood to turn. The players learned that they wouldn't make the trip to Miami. The strike officially ended the next day. "We were told, I think, in the eighth or ninth inning," Whitehurst said.
The clubhouse was somber. "It was very quiet," he said, as reality sunk in. "You're looking at the other minor league players, like, now what? What are we going to be faced with?"
The first answer, said Whitehurst, was unequal treatment compared to other replacements. At the time, a report in the Daily News quoted McIlvaine as saying the Mets were making provisions for severance checks because, "These guys all made a courageous decision and made sacrifices, and should be treated well, not poorly." When Whitehurst asked about severance, he said the GM answered, "you have a team to go to." Because of his minor-league assignment, Whitehurst wasn't entitled to additional money.
Another challenge Whitehurst faced was a cold welcome when he returned to play alongside minor-leaguers who hadn't crossed the line. "In the locker room," he said, "[other players] don't look at you, and they were speaking to you three weeks earlier."
The isolation took a toll in Port St. Lucie and Capital City, as did financial concerns. By the time the season was coming to a close, Whitehurst was "burned out" and decided he was done with baseball. Now he's happily employed as a police officer in Palo Alto, and the closest he gets to playing baseball is when he tosses Wiffle balls to his young children.
Before his last at-bat, Whitehurst told Mookie Wilson -- then a roving instructor in the Mets' minor league system -- he would end his career with a home run. After a rough season during which he hit no other balls out of the park, Whitehurst, the anxiety of a trying year finally off his shoulders, sent the ball over the left-field wall with his last swing as a professional.
* * *
Dallas Green -- well, he managed because he had to.
"I don't think he wanted any part of this crap," Sisk said.
"He wasn't too happy having to deal with a bunch of scabs," said Walpole.
Green agreed: "None of the real baseball people wanted to go through what we were put through," he said. But he was under contract. "I've always felt that if I'm going to get paid, I'm going to work hard at it and do the best I can with the job that I'm supposed to do."
To that end, "I wanted to try to get the wannabes into some kind of condition so they could at least compete."
That conditioning regimen, with long runs in the morning followed by sprints later, drew the ire of many players, and remains fresh in Sisk's mind. "He was running the living snot out of us," said Sisk, who partially attributes his own spring training-ending shoulder injury to what he saw as excessive running. "It's not going to take much to drop me. I've got both knees done, the elbow, the shoulder."
Said Walpole: "[Green] basically tried just beating the crap out of us as far as running and conditioning [to] see who was going to wither… it was a little more track than baseball."
Green shrugs off such criticism, saying he didn't do anything beyond what he thought it would take to win. "If you're an athlete," said Green, "you should recognize that you can't play any sport unless your body is prepared for it."
The workouts had their supporters.
Wagnon suspects veteran players were more apt to complain about the running. "They just didn't take it seriously," he said, "is what it might have been." It's no wonder Green remembers Wagnon as "one of [the coaches'] favorite people."
Wagnon's favorite Dallas Green story -- one Green doesn't remember but concedes sounds plausible -- came in the ninth inning of what may have been the replacement Mets' most humiliating moment, a no-hit loss to the Braves that dropped them to 0-3.
"I decided, when I walk up there, I'm going to push a bunt to the right side," Wagnon said. He placed a good bunt, but was called out on a close play at first base. Wagnon expected a pat on the back in the dugout, but Green delivered something else. "He goes: 'Bubba, you don't break up a no-hitter with a bunt on the road,'" Wagnon said, laughing. "If you were at home it might have been OK, but you don't do that s--- on the road.' I said 'yes, sir.' And I remember it to this day. I was trying to find a way to get on, and that's a no-no. He said, 'you're going to get someone killed behind you.'"
Though Wagnon and others learned much from the coaching staff -- Wagnon said he uses those lessons today as he coaches his daughters' high school softball team -- Green felt the situation was rough on the replacement players. "It was a shame to get their hopes up so high and then pull the rug out from under them," he said.
"Maybe [Green] knew and had a better perspective of what was going on in the big picture," Whitehurst said. "That was probably true." Still, "if there was anything negative [going on in his mind,] he did a good job of disguising it."
Asked about the nine-game skid that started spring training, Green, usually known for a competitive disposition, said the losing didn't end up bothering him much.
"You had to look at the talent you've got," he said. "They were just happy, really, to put on the uniform and play the game. They probably didn't know half of what they were doing, and certainly there wasn't a lot of talent there -- but they put their heart and soul into it, so we did the best we could with them."