(Larry Walker scores the winning run for the Rockies in a 2003 game. He signed with Colorado after the MLB strike ended in 1995. Photo by Associated Press).
The NFL is bracing for free-agency “mayhem” now that the lockout has been lifted, and teams engage in a free-for-all to fill out their rosters.
Crazy, yes. Unprecedented? Not exactly. I remember very clearly a similar scenario in April of 1995, when U.S. Districk Judge Sonia Sotomayor — now on the U.S. Supreme Court — ruled in favor of the players by issuing an injunction against the owners, ordering them to restore the terms and conditions of their prevous labor agreement. That effectively ended the 232-day players strike that had wiped out the final two months of the 1994 season, as well as the entire postseason. Thus also ended, on the brink of Opening Day, the awful replacement spring, as the real players flooded back to training camps for a second spring, this one a mere three weeks long.
As is the case now in the NFL, teams had to compress an entire offseason’s worth of team-building into a few short days. I vividly remember the frenzy of activity that surrounded the team I was covering, the San Francisco Giants, as they dealt with free agency, arbitration and trades, all in a matter of a few days. I remember attending a series of hastily called press conferences at their Scottsdale, Ariz., spring-training home as they signed a variety of players, including Terry Mulholland, Trevor Wilson and Glenallen Hill.
Here’s what Jayson Stark, then with the Philadelphia Enquirer, wrote on April 12, 1995: “It isn’t exactly true that every player in baseball changed teams in the last 10 days. It just seemed like it. From April 3 through yesterday, a stupifying 586 names appeared in the transactions column.”
According to another article in the Palm Beach Post the day after the strike ended, “Most major-league players are not signed for 1995. About 190 are free agents. Hundreds of arbitration cases have not been settled, and agents say it is logistically impossible to settle them by opening day.”
Many free agents set up camp in Homestead, Fla., to work out together, calling themselves the “Homestead Hobos.” On the first day that teams could start signing players, there were nearly 50 deals. The next day there wre 30 more. The financially Montreal Expos were in the process of dumping the nucleus of a powerhouse team that very well might have won the World Series if there hadn’t been a strike. The likes of Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland and Ken Hill all chnged teams. The Rockies went crazy, signing Walker (for the then outrageous sum of $22.49 million over four years) as well as Bill Swift (three years, $13.1 million). The Yankees added Jack McDowell and Wetteland, the Jays landed David Cone, the Orioles signed Kevin Brown, Doug Jones and Jesse Orosco, and the Red Sox picked up Mark Whiten, Rheal Cormier, Mike Macfarlane, Erik Hanson and Stan Belinda.
I remember it as a surreal time. It was as if the previous six weeks of replacement ball had been nothing but a dream as the real players showed up, shook off the rust, and got themselves ready in less than half the normal time of spring training (which should tell us something about how much spring training is really needed). The Mariners, of course, were about to embark on the most meaningful season in franchise history. I remember that covering the first week after the strike, as teams furiously put their rosters together, was incredibly draining, yet very exhilirating. I’ll bet my Seahawks colleague Danny O’Neil will have the same emotions in the upcoming few days.