If baseball historians ever chronicle the bizarre spring of 1995, among the artifacts they ought to examine is a box score from the Phillies’ 7-5 loss to Pittsburgh on March 5.
That Sunday afternoon in Bradenton, Fla., manager Jim Fregosi used five pitchers. His starter was a rock guitarist who hadn’t pitched anywhere in four years. The four who followed were the son of a Philadelphia sportswriter, a Texan who raised ostriches, the recent MVP of a Delco softball league, and a Western Pennsylvania aluminum worker who, until February, had been coaching in Italy.
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Just as odd were the pedigrees of the Phillies’ position players and reserves. There was a catcher who delivered bagels on his way to the ballpark each morning, a grandfather, the coach of a Hungarian Baseball League team, a boar hunter, a Golden Gloves boxing champion, a parolee, an outfielder who played college ball with Bo Jackson, and a 38-year-old left-hander who chain-smoked while pedaling endlessly on a stationary bike.
This roster array was so alien that when ex-Phillie Jeff Stone arrived at camp that spring, the only person he recognized was equipment manager Frank Coppenbarger.
“I said, `Stoney, you’re kind of a big shooter in this room,’ ” Coppenbarger recently recalled. “And he said, `Yeah, I kind of feel like Michael Jack [Schmidt].’ ”
The coronavirus’ unprecedented impact on American life has fallen on the 25th anniversary of another significant sports disruption, one that, while not as threatening as the disease, was -- for baseball fans anyway -- nearly as disconcerting.
It happened when the players’ strike that canceled the 1994 World Series stretched into the next spring. Baseball owners responded by enlisting replacement players. What followed that February and March was, depending on one’s outlook, either one of the game’s most depressing chapters or some welcome comic relief, a baseball preseason when flattened curves had a whole different meaning.
The Phillies, like most clubs, walked a fine line. Compelled to assemble a replacement roster, team executives were reluctant to antagonize the regulars they knew eventually would return. So, general manager Lee Thomas and assistant Ed Wade relied heavily on Philadelphia-area semipro talent, sprinkling in a handful of players with professional experience.
The first of what came to be called the Phil-ins reported to the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater on Feb. 17. They’d survive far longer than anyone anticipated. It wasn’t until March 31, three days shy of the scheduled opening day, that an injunction issued by future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor essentially ended the 232-day strike, not to mention the Phil-ins’ fantasies.
“We got our $5,000 signing bonuses [about $3,500 after taxes]. We got to keep our jerseys, and everybody got an autographed ball and a plane ticket home,” recalled Jim Freeman, an outfielder from Delaware County. “It was awesome.”
Though those 45 faux Phillies understood they were pawns in an expensive power struggle, for six weeks they got to experience a big-league atmosphere. They got meal money. They wore Phillies uniforms. They were managed by Fregosi, whose coaches threw them batting practice and hit them ground balls. They got to meet Richie Ashburn, the Phillies broadcaster, who’d just been elected to the Hall of Fame.
“Ashburn even came into our dugout one game,” Freeman said.
And as the scheduled start of the ’95 season neared, with no labor agreement in sight, they allowed themselves to dream. Maybe they really were going to play in big-league games, in big-league stadiums, earn big-league money.
“Fregosi met with us a few days before we were supposed to open the season in St. Louis,” said Dan Barbara, a first baseman from South Jersey who’d been managing a restaurant and coaching. “He told us if we didn’t have a sports coat to go out and buy one. I asked him if I should keep the receipt, and he said, `Yeah.’ That’s when I realized we probably weren’t going to make it.”
A quarter-century later, the Phil-ins are resettled into the lives they briefly abandoned for what amounted to a 45-day fantasy camp. At least three – Pete Conlin, Joe Singley, and Todd Cruz – have died. Freeman and Barbara opened baseball-instruction facilities. Many others stayed connected to the game.
But for all, the greatest benefit was the bragging rights. For the rest of their lives, they can proudly – and accurately – boast that for six sun-lit weeks one long-ago spring, they were Philadelphia Phillies.
Two years ago, Coppenbarger and his wife were in a Somers Point bar when a fellow patron sent them drinks. Not recognizing the man, the retired equipment manager asked the bartender for help.
“He told me the guy said he’d played for the Phillies and knew me. But I couldn’t place him,” he said.
Coppenbarger, who worked for the Phils from 1988 to 2019 and has great recall, doubted the man’s claim.
“So I went over,” he said. “He said his name was Dan Barbara and that he’d been a replacement player. I said, `Well, I guess you really were a Phillie.' ”
By February 1995, the animus between owners and striking players, exacerbated by the first World Series cancellation in 90 years, was boiling. The replacement-player scheme indicated just how much. Major-leaguers derided the substitutes as scabs. Owners vowed to play a season with them.
The Orioles, concerned the plan would end Cal Ripken’s consecutive-game streak – at 1,994 when the strike began on Aug. 12, 1994 -- refused to field a team. Clubs such as the Cardinals rounded up the best talent they could find. Most just sought warm bodies.
Scrambling to find capable players, Thomas and Wade signed ex-Phils who’d been out of baseball – Stone, Cruz, Marty Bystrom. A few ex-college and independent-league players were added. To fill the roster, they found Freeman, Barbara, Chris Geis, Dom Lamberto, Joe Cipolloni, and others in the Delco and Pendel leagues.
“I was friends with Pete Conlin,” Barbara remembered. “His dad was a Daily News baseball writer [Bill Conlin] who knew Fregosi, and he got us hooked up for a tryout. I was coaching Camden County College at the time, so we went over there. Pete threw for Jim. Then it rained. I didn’t even get to hit. Fregosi said, `I’ll take your word for it.’ And that’s how I made the team.”
Players were promised a $5,000 bonus and $110-a-day meal money. If they made it to the regular season, they’d get an additional $20,000, then be paid the major-league minimum of $109,000 on a pro rata basis.
“I didn’t feel like I was breaking a coal miners’ strike,” said Freeman, who was selling insurance at the time. “Those guys weren’t exactly being mistreated. Plus, I was going to get paid, I was going to be in Florida, and I was going to play baseball. It was a no-brainer.”
Meanwhile in Clearwater, Coppenbarger and his aides had to prepare for dozens of unknown replacements while also anticipating the strike’s end.
Most teams left the idled regulars’ equipment at home. But Coppenbarger persuaded Thomas to ship it to Florida. So as not to antagonize anyone, the truck carrying it was initially parked in an Allied Van Lines lot in Clearwater. Later, it moved to Jack Russell Stadium, where it sat obscured by batting cages.
“Things were changing so fast," Coppenbarger said. "This way, we had all the regular guys’ stuff right there for whatever happened.”
Getting “stuff” for the replacements was equally challenging. The equipment manager had no idea what size uniforms and shoes they wore, what bats they preferred.
“I made a lot of phone calls. Some of them didn’t know what size they were,” Coppenbarger said. “We gave them bats the minor leaguers used. Then we had to come up with uniform numbers. We didn’t want to give anybody Darren Daulton’s or John Kruk’s. We had to stay away from certain things but still make it as legitimate as possible. It was challenging.”
There were no baseball nutritionists or team chefs then. The Phil-ins were fed cereal and toast for breakfast, soup and cold cuts for lunch, maybe fried chicken on bus trips. One day, their breakfast was supplemented by bagels, courtesy of Darren Niethammer, a Phil-in catcher who doubled that spring as a delivery man for a St. Petersburg bakery.
They stayed two to a room at the Holiday Inn on Route 19. At the complex, where they initially worked out with minor-leaguers, and later at Jack Russell, they were assigned lockers. When he arrived, Barbara couldn’t find his.
“They were in alphabetical order, but there wasn’t one for me. I thought I’d been cut before I even started,” Barbara said. “Turned out Jeff Stone wanted to be next to Kim Batistse" the ex-Phil then in the minors, "so he moved my stuff.”
In the clubhouse, most were on their best behavior, especially those from the Philly area, who were dumbstruck at being part of a team they’d grown up idolizing.
The beat writers sought out players with interesting back stories. Cruz, for example, was a grandfather at 39 and had appeared in Hollywood films; Singley had been a successful Golden Gloves boxer; Dixon, a former Cardinal pitcher, had been arrested on cocaine charges in 1991; outfielder Andy Albrecht had played at Auburn with Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas; Cipolloni worked in a Philly-area hoagie shop; pitcher George Riley, 38, spent hours riding the clubhouse stationary bike, an ever-present cigarette between his lips.
Phillies executives, caught in the middle of the labor dispute, were hypersensitive, careful not to praise or criticize the replacements. Thomas once angrily confronted an Inquirer writer who’d suggested the GM and Fregosi had been laughing during an intrasquad game.
When the exhibition season dawned in early March, the crowds were thin, the performances mixed. But, while they frequently were overmatched, the Phil-ins performed respectably. They were 9-6 before a 17-0 pounding from Texas sent them reeling to an 11-14 finish.
Pitchers Geis and Gary Brahs threw consistently well. Albrecht impressed many as the team’s best all-around player. In one game, Barbara homered from both sides of the plate. Blackballed by the players association when the strike ended, none ever got so close to the big leagues again.
“Some of those guys could play,” said Freeman, who now operates four All-Star Baseball Academies in the Philadelphia area. “I think everyone worked hard and took it seriously. I know I did.”
Somehow, they found enough pitchers to get them through 25 preseason games.
“The way they’d try out pitchers was funny,” Freeman recalled. “They’d go to the bullpen with [pitching coach] Johnny Podres. A guy would throw three pitches, and Podres would send them away. `Get out of here.’”
The experience left them all with stories they’ll tell forever, like the time Fregosi told Freeman to get ready to pinch-run.
“I go down to right field to warm up. I’m running along the warning track the way pitchers do in the spring,” Freeman said. “Somebody tells me Fregosi wants to see me. I go back to the dugout, and he gets in my face. He said, `You’re not training for the [expletive] Olympics. I need you to run 180 [expletive] feet. That’s it.’”
The Monsignor Bonner graduate met his future wife that spring. A mutual friend had introduced them, but after he left for Florida they communicated only by phone. Toward the end of camp, she flew down, and they had their first date. But not until her uncle, an FBI agent, checked him out.
“Right before a game, he came down into the dugout,” Freeman said. “Fregosi is mad, and he’s wondering what’s going on. I hear him yell, `Hey, Freeman, you’ve got a guest.’ The guy worked for the FBI. What was I going to do?”
During a Cardinals-Phillies game in Clearwater, clubhouse assistant Phil Sheridan was working outside when St. Louis’ right fielder greeted him. His name was Steve Grandizio, and he was Sheridan’s neighbor back in Delaware County.
By the end of March, rumors spread that a labor settlement was close. Still, Thomas told the remaining 26 replacements to get ready for the April 2 opener in St. Louis. Then, on March 31, the day of Sotomayor’s ruling, coach Mike Ryan ushered them one-by-one into Fregosi’s office. The strike was over. They were going home.
“They did what they were asked,” Fregosi, who died in 2014, said at the time. “They tried hard. They worked hard.”
One of the last to be summoned was outfielder Jeff Hull.
“OK,” he told Thomas and Fregosi after getting the news, “but before I go, could you sign my bat?”
One by one, players gathered whatever memorabilia they could and drifted away. No official record of their adventure exists, except for the scrapbook a nephew of Barbara’s compiled. A few years ago, the ex-replacement player opened it. He was mesmerized.