CLEARWATER, Fla. — These are dark days for Major League Baseball. Attendance and TV ratings already had been dipping in recent years, and now the game is dealing with cheating scandals involving the Houston Astros and the yet-to-be punished Boston Red Sox, the teams that won the 2017 and 2018 World Series.
Shame and dishonor unfortunately are almost as familiar to baseball as balls and strikes. Two of the most notable stains in the game’s history were the 1919 Chicago White Sox World Series fix and the PED-fueled numbers that have kept Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, and others out of the Hall of Fame.
The worst smudge on baseball history, however, came in 1994, when the billionaire owners and millionaire players could not settle a labor dispute and fans were left without a World Series for the first time since 1904.
Salt was rubbed into that wound 25 years ago, when the owners attempted the weakest of strong-arms by staging a faux spring training with replacement players in an attempt to get the real ones to end what was then the longest strike in sports history.
Phillies great Larry Bowa, who is 74 and in a spring-training camp for the 50th time in his career, agrees that the cancellation of the World Series and the subsequent replacement-player spring were the worst time in his long career, but he is also plenty steamed by baseball’s modern-day scandal.
“I don’t think it can be any worse than [canceling the World Series], but this is close,” Bowa said. “What the Astros did is bad. It’s really … bad.”
So bad that he thinks something should still be done about it.
“It’s just hard for me to believe that they used a trash can and they did it for that long and nobody did anything about it,” Bowa said. “I’m talking about the teams they were playing. I know for a fact that if that happened when I was playing and Steve Carlton had been pitching, he’d have drilled somebody if they kept hitting that can.
“Why wouldn’t you do anything about it? I’m not saying hit them in the head. I don’t want anybody to get killed, but hit somebody in the ribs and say, ‘If you want to keep doing it, we’re going to keep drilling you.’ That will stop it. Believe me, guys don’t want to get hit. But nobody did anything.”
Bowa said somebody should this season.
“I’ll be shocked if some pitchers do not drill some of these guys this year,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, this game has really changed. I know it has changed, but somebody has got to take some hits. Hit them in the ribs, hit them in the leg, whatever you have to do, but let them know you’re ticked off about what happened.
"What are they going to do? They can’t do a f---- thing. They should be embarrassed by it all. They need to come out and say, ‘You know what, we made a big-time mistake.' The way they are handling it is brutal.”
Bowa is also appalled that the Astros denied using buzzer alerts inside their uniforms, a part of the scandal that appeared to be revealed by video of second baseman Jose Altuve’s game-winning home run against the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.
“If that was me, I’d let them rip every piece of my clothing off,” Bowa said. “They could strip me naked. He went down underneath into the clubhouse, he changed his shirt, and it was so f---- obvious what was going on. They’ve turned their back on that part of it, and they keep saying there was no buzzer. There was a buzzer.”
Some have defended the Astros by saying that sign-stealing has been part of baseball forever. That argument also chaps Bowa’s old-school mentality.
“If you’re at second and you break down the catcher’s code, that’s fair game,” he said. “You’re coaching third and the catcher is exposing signs, that’s on him. But this stuff that they did is wrong. They need to get all the video equipment turned off during the game.”
Bowa, the Phillies’ third-base coach in the 1990s, said he doesn’t think much about the dark days of the mid-'90s strike any more unless he is asked about it. His most vivid memory of that spring training is how angry the late Jim Fregosi was about having to manage replacement players.
“He told [the coaches], ‘I’m not managing. You guys go out and hit fungos,’ ” Bowa said. “I remember me and Vuk [John Vukovich] telling him, ‘We’re not hitting any f---- fungos.’ We ended up doing it, but Jimmy didn’t manage them at all.”
Though not amused at the time, Bowa said that some comical things did unfold during the six weeks with the replacements. Fregosi did not manage the Phil-Ins, but he did order 6-foot-5 lefty Mike Linskey to get his pet ferrets, Raz and Berry, out of the Jack Russell Stadium clubhouse.
“The fact that we went through that BS and had to follow the script and everything, it was embarrassing more than anything,” Bowa said. “I can forgive the guys who in their minds knew they’d never play in the big leagues for doing it, but those guys who already had a taste of the big leagues, I’m still not happy about that.”