Jamie Nelson hit cleanup every night in 1992—pushing a mop on the late janitorial shift at a Southern California high school. "I've been in the big leagues," he would say to himself, "and now look what I'm doing." Nelson, who played 40 games for the Seattle Mariners in 1983, laughs now and says, "If you'd told me as I was slumped over a toilet, trying to clean it, that I'd be in a big league camp in '95, I'd have said you were full of what was in the bowl. Never in a million years."
Believe it or not, it looks as if the former custodian will be the Kansas City Royals' No. 1 catcher when the club opens spring training on Feb. 19 in Baseball City, Fla. Nelson, 35, is just one of hundreds of guys that major league teams have collected to use either as replacement players or to fill minor league rosters, in case striking major leaguers aren't back to work by Opening Day, April 2.
And there wasn't any indication, when SI went to press on Monday night, that the big leaguers would be returning to their teams soon. If anything, the Major League Baseball Players Association, as well as the owners, appeared content to wait and see what would unfold beginning on Tuesday, when federal mediator William J. Usery, at the urging of President Clinton, was scheduled to present his own plan for ending the six-month strike.
Any hope that the owners and players might settle the strike themselves disintegrated on Sunday night, when, after the players' association announced the end to its six-week freeze on contract signings, the owners turned right around and instituted a signing freeze of their own. Union executive director Donald Fehr was furious. "It's the most provocative thing they could have done," he said, suggesting it was a direct affront to the President, who had urged both sides to end their dispute by 5 p.m. Monday or his office would intervene.
"We're not going back to the 1994 system," said one major league executive. "That's gone forever."
But the owners had indicated they would return to the old system last Friday night, when they rescinded their salary cap after being informed by the National Labor Relations Board that it would issue an unfair labor practice complaint, alleging that the system was implemented illegally on Dec. 23. The owners and players then exchanged proposals tied to a luxury tax on team payrolls, but the proposals were so far apart that negotiations ended Saturday night, and Clinton's intervention became inevitable. But as of Monday night, the President didn't seem to have the clout to brine an end to the strike.
All of this was music to the ears of Nelson, who is eager to return to the majors after a 12-year absence. "It's a done deal; I'm in a three-point stance right now," says Nelson, who doesn't care if he incurs the wrath of striking players. "This isn't about me against the players; it's the players against the owners. This is about me for me."
After retiring from baseball following the 1990 season, Nelson went back to school to earn an associate of arts degree, taking classes and also coaching at Orange Coast College, in Costa Mesa, Calif., while cleaning carpets for a living. He moved on to coaching positions at UCLA and California Baptist College, in Riverside. When the carpet-cleaning business folded, he started scrubbing toilets.
Last spring Nelson ran into an old friend, former major leaguer Ed Jurak, who was managing in the Texas-Louisiana League, a Double A-caliber independent loop. Jurak persuaded Nelson to come play for his team, the Mobile Bay-Sharks, and Nelson eventually wound up as a player-coach, hitting .387 and even going 3-0 as a fill-in pitcher.
On Jan. 25 the Royals purchased Nelson's contract for replacement purposes, but he's going to spring training intent on sticking with the team even after striking players return. "I can still play, and I need the money," says Nelson, who has been coaching at Spring Hill College in Mobile in return for his tuition there. "I've got student loans up the ying-yang. I'm tired of doing —— jobs. I'm elated, rejuvenated. What more can a guy ask at age 35?"