Scab power

A pair of former "replacement" players, Rick Reed and Benny Agbayani, lead the Mets to victory in Game 3.

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Tuesday night Shea Stadium saw a little bit of baseball history. It had nothing to do with what Roger Clemens did or did not throw. Nothing to do with the Yankees’ 14-game World Series winning streak coming to an end. And only a little to do with the first blemish on Orlando Hernandez’s 8-0 postseason record.

At 8:37 p.m. EDT, Mets starter Rick Reed threw a fastball for a strike to Jose Vizcaino. In doing so he became the first so-called replacement player to start a World Series game. Others might simply call him a scab.

Flash back for a moment to baseball’s bad old days. Six years ago this October, there was no World Series. The Fall Classic fell victim to baseball’s longest and bitterest labor dispute, a players strike precipitated by the owners’ illegal imposition of a salary cap. In spring training the following year, Reed, and about two dozen other current major leaguers, including teammate Benny Agbayani and injured Yankees outfielder Shane Spencer, crossed the picket line. In some places, that kind of action would earn you a pipe across the temple. It earned Reed, then a career minor leaguer with the Cincinnati Reds, a chance to play in a handful of sloppy scab games with high school coaches and vacuum cleaner salesmen. Five improbable years later, Reed was called upon to help salvage the season for the New York Mets.

“It’s not surprising that he’s playing,” said Marvin Miller, former executive director for the Major League Baseball Players Association, only moments before the first pitch. “What’s surprising is that nobody seems to care.” Indeed, with the assembled media horde gnawing on the bone of a 50-large fine issued to Clemens, the silence regarding Reed was deafening. Even Donald Fehr, Miller’s replacement, was diplomatic to a fault. “He’s a member of the club and Bobby [Valentine] chose to start him,” he said before the game. “We never say anything about who participates in games — ever.”



Miller is less circumspect. “It’s about values,” argues the man who helped end almost a century of indentured servitude for the players. “Once upon a time a scab was the lowest thing on earth. That’s no longer the case.” Indeed, it’s easy to see why Reed was put in the position to cross the picket line. While real prospects like the Yankees’ Derek Jeter were purposely isolated in minor league camps far from the front lines of baseball’s labor war, suspects like Reed were called in to help do the owners’ dirty work.

And on this night, the contrast with Reed’s mound rival couldn’t have been more striking. With his socks pulled high and his cap pulled low, Yankee starter Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez displays the throwback vibe and leonine grace of one who was born to the mound. He sports an improbable leg kick that a Rockette would envy, yet all the hitches and hesitations hold together aesthetically, and the result may be baseball’s postmodern pitching motion. Reed, on the other hand, has the body of a beer-league softball player poured into mercifully oversize double-knits. His motion is reminiscent of a lady shot-putter, all sweat and effort. Reed comes to a set, heaves the ball and hopes for the best.

And when the going got tough early, the entitlement gap seemed all the more obvious. Robin Ventura jacks a second-inning home run, and El Duque merely glances toward the royal blue outfield wall, then turns back to business abruptly. Asking the umpire for the ball, cleaning the rubber with his foot, tugging at his cap, he’s oblivious to the fireworks going off in the background, the Giant Big Apple below the scoreboard springing to life like Pee-wee Herman at a porn flick. “They don’t have this kind of horseshit in Cuba,” his indifference seems to say. He then proceeds to strike out the side. When you’ve worked for Fidel Castro, George Steinbrenner’s disapproval doesn’t faze you.

Reed, by contrast, is clearly half-full guy. After allowing a go-ahead triple to Paul O’Neill in the fourth, and then plunking Scott Brosius accidentally, he stomps around with obvious disgust. Even after he gets Vizcaino on strikes to end the inning, he mutters to himself on the way to the dugout, grimacing and grinding his gum.

But while Reed, who has struggled mightily this postseason, wouldn’t win any beauty contests, he kept the Mets close, scattering six hits and two runs, and pitching El Duque to a standoff. Reed’s chance at the win ended when Darryl Hamilton pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the sixth.

But this was to be a scab-powered night at Shea. In the bottom of the eighth, Agbayani, the Mets’ other “replacement,” laced an RBI double to knock El Duque out and give the Mets their first Series game win in 16 years.

“I don’t think the players understand the situation,” says Miller. “They want to be on a team that wins. If the scab proves to be an efficient player, they’re quick to forgive him.”

And that was the case Tuesday at Shea. The winning pitcher and main beneficiary of Reed’s persistence and Agbayani’s opportunism was reliever/union rep John Franco, who wears an orange Department of Sanitation T-shirt under his jersey in honor of his late father. Franco and his fellow union reps have voted year after year to deny Reed, Agbayani and the rest of the “replacements” (the scabs, not Paul Westerberg’s band) admission to the union, and the slice of marketing revenue and pension benefits that goes with it. But in the afterglow of his first World Series victory, any irony was completely lost on him.

“Rick Reed did a hell of a job tonight,” Franco beamed. “He went inning for inning with El Duque. We knew that Rick Reed was capable of pitching a game like that. He kept us in the game, gave our guys a chance to score runs. That’s what we ask of him.” And nothing more.

Allen St. John is the author of "The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes at the Super Bowl" and "Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument"

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