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Old wounds

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 17, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- It began in jest, as these things often do. A bunch of Rays on a bus, drinking beer, razzing the younger guys. Cory Lidle would have been laughing with the rest if he did not fear what was about to come.

A voice had been shouting his name -- "What about Lidle?" -- and soon one of the veterans had a microphone in his hand and Lidle in his sight.

"Tell me it's not true," the player shouted at Lidle. "Tell me you're not a scab."

It grew uglier. Insults mixed with profanities. Seemingly 24 players turned on one. Explaining himself only would have made it worse. So Lidle picked the next-best option. He challenged the loudest and drunkest to fight.

Lidle is speaking softly now, but still glances around the Athletics clubhouse to ensure no one else is listening. The topic is unpopular and, in some circles, so is the speaker. You see, secrets never last in a major-league clubhouse, although grudges can go on forever.

No one knows this better than Lidle. He has spent five seasons in the big leagues, but some still choose to remember him for the one afternoon he pitched as a replacement player in a spring training game in 1995.

With baseball once again facing an uncertain labor situation, the reminders of the last strike are everywhere. In the angry tone of fans, the empty seats in stadiums and the often solitary existence of former replacement players.

It may have been the most ill-conceived strategy ever in baseball's many labor wars. Months after the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, and with no labor agreement in sight, owners foolishly tried to pressure the union by beginning spring training in '95 with replacement players.

Even management seemed to sense the plan was doomed. Many clubs advised their top prospects not to cross the picket line for fear of reprisals down the road. Instead, they filled their big-league rosters with former Triple-A players and their own marginal minor-leaguers. Players they felt were disposable once the real major-leaguers returned.

Kevin Lidle, Cory's twin brother and a minor-league catcher in the Tigers' system in '95, was told by management to stay away from replacement games.

Cory was not so fortunate.

An undrafted free agent out of Southern California -- where he went to high school with the Giambi brothers -- Lidle signed with the Twins in 1990 and was released two years later. He spent time working in the kitchen of a bar and playing for an independent league team before hooking up with Milwaukee.

When spring training rolled around in '95, Lidle says the Brewers told him he had two choices: play in replacement games or eventually be released.

Lidle tried to arrange to play in games without being paid but was told that was not possible. So, as a Class-A player, he would report to the minor-league spring training camp each morning and check the list of players needed that day in the big-league camp.

His name was on the list twice. One game, he sat on the bench. In the other, he pitched one inning.

"I was 23 years old, I didn't know anything," Lidle says. "I had already been released once. I didn't want to get sent home. Now, when I look back, I was naive. Even if they had sent me home, they would have eventually brought me back. And if they didn't, someone else would have.

"If I was a couple of years older or listened to someone else's advice, I might have made a different decision."

Lidle, 30, says he regrets the decision, but does not necessarily apologize for making it. At the time, he says, he did not know better. Now he does.

He also has the luxury, with hindsight, of seeing how the decision has affected him. Although he does not believe his career has been impacted, his relationship with teammates undoubtedly has.

The Brewers traded him a year later and he reached the majors with the Mets in 1997. He has been with four big-league teams and says he has run into players who ignore him, others who are polite but keep their distance and some who treat him as any other teammate.

His worst experience was with the Rays in 2000. He is reluctant to talk about specifics and asks that names not be revealed.

The incident on the bus was diffused when players broke up the fight before it could begin, but his relationship with his teammates was never the same.

"Four or five days later, Roberto Hernandez came up to me and said he didn't know why I did what I did and he didn't condone what I did, but he said it was (expletive) that it was brought up on the bus like that," Lidle says. "He said if anybody had a problem with me, they should have handled it one-on-one. And you know, I appreciated that. Roberto wasn't saying that he agreed with me, but he didn't think it should be handled that way either."

During his final summer with the Rays, Lidle's teammates steered clear. Fred McGriff was one of the few who would have lunch or play golf with him.

"Just about the whole team turned standoffish," Lidle says. "Even the younger guys who weren't even around in '95 were treating me like that. I thought, 'Are you serious? Okay, go ahead, do what you want.' Nobody ever asked me why I did it, they just followed the crowd."

In the years immediately following the strike, the wounds were more raw. When Joel Chimelis was called up by the Giants, his teammates refused to speak to him. Management sent him back to the minors to avoid further hassles.

Relief pitcher Ron Mahay reached the majors with Oakland in September 1999. When Mahay entered the clubhouse the first time, veteran Tony Phillips reportedly shouted, "Scab in the room! We got a scab in the house!"

Two years ago, when the Red Sox and Rays were involved in a nasty brawl, more than one Tampa Bay player derisively referred to Boston first baseman Brian Daubach afterward as a "scab."

More than a dozen former replacement players dot major-league rosters at any given time. Some are more familiar than others. Twins pitcher Rick Reed, Arizona All-Star catcher Damian Miller, Yankees outfielder Shane Spencer are on that list, along with disabled Rays reliever Tom Martin.

The replacement players have not been permitted to join the union and do not receive licensing money.

In Lidle's case, the licensing money is negligible. Traded to Oakland as part of the Ben Grieve deal in 2001, Lidle established himself as a starter last season and was rewarded with a two-year, $7.6-million contract.

His big contract may be offensive to union members making less money, but Lidle is not about to dwell on that. He says, in fact, that until the past two weeks, he has paid little attention to labor issues.

Now there is talk of another strike. And Lidle, who once crossed an imaginary picket line without realizing the cost, is talking about supporting a union to which he does not belong.

"If we have to," he says, "we'll all go out together."

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