Or even 44? That's the age of former Milwaukee Brewer centerfielder Gorman Thomas, who hasn't played since 1986 but has talked with his old team about being a replacement player. He's planning to participate in the club's fantasy camp next week and then go on to the Brewers' minor league camp. While acting commissioner Bud Selig, the Milwaukee owner, isn't happy about using replacement players, obviously some owners believe fans will buy tickets regardless of whether they're watching Gorman Thomas, Frank Thomas or Mario Thomas.
In fact, baseball is being transformed into one gigantic fantasy camp, filled with has-beens and never-wases—and dreamers who in the last six weeks rushed to be scrutinized by major league scouts in try-out camps that were largely a waste of time. The Atlanta Braves scheduled a try-out in Atlanta, and 1,300 players showed up before the camp was rained out. Another 1,300 went to a three-day camp hosted by the California Angels, who happily signed nine players to minor league contracts. At a Pittsburgh Pirate tryout, a 55-year-old pitcher, who had played in an amateur senior league, claimed his velocity had increased as he got older.
"I can't go anywhere without someone telling me he's trying out," says Pirate coach Rich Donnelly. "A mechanic, guys at the mill. Two doctors said they'd quit their practice. They're serious. They think playing in Triple A and belonging to AAA is the same thing. I figure someone came to a tryout camp wearing wing tips. It's a bunch of Ralph Kramdens. It's amazing what fans think of major league baseball."
The Cincinnati Reds' tryout camp in Plant City, Fla., was run by the team's scouting director, Julian Mock—a fitting name, given the state of the game. One pitcher, a fat guy in his 30's, arrived at camp carrying his gear in a bowling-ball bag. Of course, Clint West, 24, who pitched at the University of Cincinnati and appeared in two games for the Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent Northern League in 1993, was in Plant City—his 127th tryout camp, lifetime. "I'll drive 700 miles one day and 400 the next day just to be seen," he says. "I'm planning to go to all the replacement-player camps."
Jimmy Ashcraft, 37 years old and a grandfather, usually drives the Cincinnati team bus during spring training, but he tried out as a pitcher. "My dream is to ride the bus, not drive it," he said. "I got pointers from some guys on the team last year, so I thought I'd try out. If I didn't, I'd regret it the rest of my life."
When he took his turn on the mound, Ashcraft was wearing gray socks, oil-stained sneakers, a first baseman's mitt and—are you ready for this?—a watch. He threw 40 mph. Maybe. "I wish I'd gotten my curveball to break a little more," he said. "But at least I didn't throw one over the fence like the guy next to me."
The concept of replacement baseball is revolting to almost everyone in the game, including some owners. But until a labor agreement is reached, it is the owners' chosen alternative to not starting the season at all. For the last month scouts and general managers have been dragging sandlots, tryout camps, the Mexican League, independent leagues and the depths of the minor league system, looking for players who have—or once had—some baseball skills. Those players also have to be willing to cross a picket line if asked.
"It's discouraging," Montreal Expo general manager Kevin Malone says of laying the groundwork for a 32-man replacement roster, "but at least it can't get any worse." Malone says he and his staff have called about 500 players since the first of the year, with roughly a third saying they wanted to play, a third saying they didn't and the rest being unsure. "[Former major leaguers] have called me laughing because they've been contacted by some teams," says a prominent player agent. "Some of these guys have been out of the game for eight years."
On the other hand there are teams that, instead of contacting hundreds of players, chose to wade through the deluge of calls from people seeking tryouts. "We got calls from people in their 50's," says Chicago Cub G.M. Ed Lynch. "We won't have a problem with quantity, but I can't attest to the quality." That goes without saying.
"It's a very negative situation, but we're trying to make a positive out of it," says Cincinnati G.M. Jim Bowden, who intends to fill his replacement roster with players from his minor league system. "I don't think replacement players—I call them substitute players—should be guys who were released two years ago or retired two years ago. I'd rather have young, hungry players."