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Posted at 01:36 PM ET, 03/30/2011

The last replacement player

It barely earned a couple of lines of agate type in the “transactions” column over the weekend. Even in the Los Angeles papers, it got only a passing mention, prefaced with the phrase “in other news…” And on the surface, that’s all the Los Angeles Dodgers’ release of veteran reliever Ron Mahay warranted. A 39-year-old lefty specialist getting cut in the final week of spring training is so unremarkable as to barely qualify as news.

Except there was a weird, cosmic significance to Ron Mahay: He was the last of the replacement players – that group of players, mostly fringe prospects and minor-league lifers, recruited by the owners (in a questionable strategy that ultimately failed) to populate big league rosters during the spring of 1995, as the devastating strike of 1994-95 wore on.

And if Mahay does not latch on with another team, it will close the books on that ugly chapter in baseball history. It will also make baseball’s union whole again, as replacement players were barred from union membership for the duration of their careers. For the past 16 years, there were always at least a handful of major leaguers (in 2010, there were two: Mahay and reliever Brendan Donnelly) who could not attend union meetings, did not receive a share of licensing money, and whose names and likenesses were excluded from official team merchandise and official MLB video games.

“We’ve been representing [replacement] players throughout their careers, handling things like salary arbitrations for them. And they’re members of our bargaining unit even though they’re not members of the union,” Michael Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said last week. “Frankly, Ron and other players in those circumstances when they were active players, even though they weren’t members of the union, were always supportive of the union’s efforts — because they understood that the rights in the basic agreement benefited them.

“So I don’t think it’s affected us in terms of our solidarity. I could understand from an historical perspective why it’s significant, but I don’t think it’s going to affect us.”

Understandably, Mahay, who was a struggling 23-year-old minor-league outfielder with the Boston Red Sox during the spring of 1995, has been reluctant to discuss his status as the last replacement player. He declined to answer a question about it from an ESPN.com reporter (“That was 15 years ago,” he said), and when I tried to talk to him one morning last week at the Dodgers’ spring camp in Glendale, Ariz., he said he would catch up with me later, then never appeared in the clubhouse again before it was closed to reporters.

Many of the former replacement players have described being lied to and coerced by management during the period that spring when teams were attempting to put together replacement rosters. Mahay’s wife, Alison, once told an interviewer that the Red Sox’s pitch to him was: “Do this or go home, and I don’t know if you’ll ever be back.”

“That was a very difficult time for everybody associated with baseball,” Weiner said. “There was tremendous pressure exerted on players to participate in those games. Looking back, I don’t think anyone on the owner’s side was crazy about it.”

Indeed, the owners’ strategy crumbled when one of their ranks, Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles, announced that his team would not use replacement players. By the end of March 1995, the strike was effectively ended by Sonia Sotomayor, at the time a U.S. District judge, who issued a preliminary injunction against the owners that barred them from using replacement players.

While Mahay symbolically represents the end of the replacement player era, that shouldn’t be considered his legacy. In fact, Mahay has had one of the more fascinating careers in recent memory. He owns the distinction of being one of the only players in history to make the big leagues as a hitter (1995), then switch to pitching and make it back to the big leagues as a pitcher within just two years (1997). He spent one offseason working as an extra on “All My Children.” He has been released, waived or otherwise trash-heaped at least nine times. He was a throw-in to the Braves/Rangers Mark Teixeira trade of 2007. In all, he spent parts of 15 seasons in the majors with eight different franchises.

It was a good run that Ron Mahay had, made even more impressive by the difficult way it began.

In the official records, he is but a blip in the histories of those eight franchises, one of those lefty-on-lefty specialists who tend to stick around forever. If anything, his legacy is as a survivor. And his cosmic significance is much the same: Of all those naïve kids and desperate dreamers who crossed the picket line in the spring of 1995, he was — and still is, for all we know — the last one to give up the dream.

By  |  01:36 PM ET, 03/30/2011

 
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