One rule I’ve learned over a million years of baseball coverage is that when a general manager calls unsolicited, prepare for the worst: you’re about to get blown up, probably for an innocent turn of phrase that sort of reads like a statement. of war on this executive.

Put it this way: if the phone calls start with “Are you (beeping) me?” the conversation can only go one way.

But I admit I was caught off guard one day in January 1995 when Gene Michael reached out with an entirely different question.

“Bobby, would you like to be a Yankee?” ” he said.

I didn’t know who Stick was talking to – my 7-year-old self who dreamed of playing wrestling with Mickey Mantle and who would have said “yes” in the blink of an eye. Or the grown-up cynic who knew exactly why baseball’s most iconic franchise wanted to sign a sportswriter.

the current MLB lockoutwhich appears to be heading into another delayed season, brings back those memories.

Like everyone else during the Great Strike of 1994-95, the Yankees were looking for replacements. Their first stop was the Metropolitan League, a highly competitive semi-professional circuit in Bergen County. Stick, who lived in the area, knew I was pitching for the Hackensack Troasts and must have thought I could hold my own as a substitute. More importantly, I could relate the Yankees to several of my teammates who had professional experience.

I knew immediately that I couldn’t accept Stick’s offer. The strike would eventually end and I would have to face the players whose picket line I crossed. A polite pass was my only option – but not right away. I told Stick cryptically, “I’ll let you know,” so I could one day tell my grandkids that the Yankees had been desperately trying to get me to wear pinstripes.

A stretch, sure, but more on that later. In the meantime, I opened the door to several of my fellow Troasts, each of whom was a Met League star worthy of Yankees interest.

Three were pitchers (Tim Byron, Doug Cinnella and Frank Eufemia) who had reached class AAA or the majors. Needless to say, anything I could do with a baseball – run it, sink it, cut it – they could do better.

The fourth player, center fielder John DiGirolamo, was a Division III national champion at William Paterson University in 1992. A 5-6 dynamo with supernatural streak power, 24-year-old DiGirolamo had batted .478 in the previous Met League season. He was a Jose Altuve from the previous generation. I couldn’t believe the scouts forgot him in the draft.

Before putting DiGirolamo and the others in touch with the Yankees, I asked everyone if they had a problem being a scab. Nobody thought twice about it, although in DiGirolamo’s case, peer pressure was undoubtedly at play. He was working in construction in New York at the time and would later become a police officer in Dumont .

“I come from a union family because of my dad, and I became a member of a police union,” DiGirolamo said by phone this week. “But it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Not when it meant being a Yankee. It was a chance to play for Buck Showalter.

Cinnella, a Paramus native and Hall of Famer at Seton Hall, had achieved Triple-A with the Mets. The show had been just a phone call away. But that’s not why Cinnella agreed to be a replacement.

“I was 30 and I rationally knew it was time to do something else, even though I still had this idea that I might get signed somewhere,” Cinnella said. “So I thought if I played substitute ball I would be blackballed forever. It would be the end of my career. And that was my motivation – to be compelled to go on with my life.

Byron made his own private peace with the strikers after a career that flourished at Seton Hall and ended in 1989 with the Class-AAA Yankees. A 6-4 right-hander with a knuckle curve, Byron said, “I never saw myself as a scab. I wasn’t taking anyone’s job. I felt like I was on loan until the strike was over.

Additionally, Bryon was already friends with Showalter, as their minor league careers intersected in the Yankees system in the late ’80s. Byron said, “You don’t forget someone like that.”

I wondered if the reverse was true, so I asked Showalter if he remembered the band from Jersey 27 years later.

“Tell me the names,” Buck said by phone from Port St. Lucie. I listed all four. Showalter wrote each of them down and then repeated the spelling to me. He nailed everyone.

“Of course I remember, they knew how to play, they belonged,” Buck said. “I liked Byron a lot, he had a lot of (beep)-you in him, that’s what you want in a pitcher. And DiGirolamo, he could have stayed in the minors as a left fielder if he wanted to. .

Indeed, both Troasts were offered a spot in the Yankees farm system in case one of the major league players was injured during abbreviated spring training. But Bryon decided to return to his teaching job at Old Tappan, where he was also set to become a high school baseball coach. And DiGirolamo was ready to be a cop.

During that month, however, Showalter treated them like real ballplayers. Unlike other clubs, who viewed their replacements as fantasy campers, the Yankees were pressured by George Steinbrenner to field an elite squad – even though the players themselves knew the illusion wouldn’t last long.

Showalter himself was eager to see the True Yankees, who in 1994 were arguably the best team in baseball, en route to a World Series that was never played. If anyone had the right to fire the Jersey boys, it was Showalter.

But instead he led a professional and precise program, rewarding the substitutes’ love of baseball with personal commitment.

“I owed these guys and Mr. Steinbrenner to treat them with respect,” Showalter said. “They took it seriously, so I felt I needed it too.”

It is perhaps for this reason that my teammates did not regret this ephemeral dream. Showalter made them feel at home. Would Buck have extended the same courtesy to a sports journalist? I wonder.

I ended up calling Stick just before the replacement camp opened. I had made up my mind: I belonged in the press gallery, not in the dugout.

He paused before laughing heartily.

“What a pity,” Stick said. “Nothing would have made me happier than freeing you.”

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Bob Klapisch can be reached at [email protected].