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Kuld and Colder Replacements

TAKING A CHANCE: Life in Baseball. One in an occasional series


WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — It was a mutt of indistinguishable breed and mysterious origin. The battered fleabag wandered in from the swampland last month, ribs protruding and hair a matted mess.

A chunk of hide was missing from its hindquarters, where an alligator evidently availed itself of a free meal. You know, some folks say dog tastes like chicken.

Groundskeepers at the Chain O'Lakes Stadium complex cleaned up the frazzled pooch, named her Fungo, and set her free to roam the sprawling site, which serves as the spring-training home of the Cleveland Indians.

Hardly anyone noticed. All eyes were on the motley crew on the field as camp opened with an anonymous cast of vagrants bent on playing major-league baseball--and willing to take shortcuts to get there.

With the big-league strike meandering past its 200th day, Cleveland's spring roster is littered with players of dubious credentials, each an aspiring replacement candidate. You know, some folks say these chickens look like dogs.

In terms of making the show, most are guys who couldn't. Probably guys who shouldn't.

A few years back, the motion picture "Major League" poked fun at the woeful, downtrodden Indians and featured a past-his-prime catcher taking one last hack at glory.

No doubt about it, the spring scene in 1995 is a wild thing and Chatsworth High graduate Pete Kuld is right in the middle of the whacked-out story line. But there's no script.

Four days into spring training, a lightning bolt hit Kuld--a 28-year-old catcher with a career average of .228 in eight minor-league seasons--upside the head.

"You know, nobody's noticed, but we basically are the cast of 'Major League,' " Kuld said.

This ain't fiction, though at times it qualifies as comedy.


Players couldn't believe their ears. A handful of retired folks peered through the chain-link fence and tried to make out a recognizable name on the Cleveland uniforms.

Good luck. Two fans half-seriously ran through the old Abbott and Costello routine.

Who's on first.

What's on second.

I Dunno's on third.

Exactly. Nobody knows.

"There aren't many gas station attendants, mechanics or custodians here," Kuld said. "These guys are mainly people who played somewhere last year."

Mainly being the key word. Heck, the biographies of Cleveland's non-roster catching corps alone have more twists and turns than a tale from the Brothers Grimm.

Alongside his brethren, Kuld looked like a world-beater, the consummate pro.

Greg Toler hasn't played professionally since 1987 and works for an office supply company in Florida. He once played football in junior high for John Hart, now Cleveland's general manager. Even in Scab Ball, it's who you know that matters.

Toler, 30, sparkled in comparison to fellow wanna-be catcher Joe Demus, who didn't survive the first day of camp before the ax fell on his thick neck. The writing on the wall read: You are an average Joe, if that.

Demus, a former Boston Red Sox farmhand with a lifetime minor-league average of .193, was listed at 6-feet-2, 189 pounds. His left thigh probably weighed that much alone, perhaps a result of his most recent profession: Delivery man for an Italian restaurant in West Virginia.

Demus, who hadn't played since 1992, has a slow drawl and slower feet.

By the end of the first day, the guy Indian coaches derisively nicknamed Joe D. was gone. As Demus, 28, waddled out of the locker room for the first and last time, having barely survived afternoon conditioning drills without suffering a coronary, he wished a teammate good luck.

"I can't handle this," Demus said. "But I got a call from the Phillies, so I'm heading there. Maybe their camp will be easier."

What a scene. Even catchers from within the organization were a bumbling lot. Mitch Meluskey hit .241 last summer for Cleveland's Class A affiliate in Kinston, N.C. Meluskey made the mistake of missing an appointment with a team trainer and paid the price.

Coaches made Meluskey ride a bicycle over a series of sandy levees. After a couple of hours, coaches suspected Meluskey wasn't working hard enough.

They removed the bicycle seat.

Compared to the scene at some camps, the Cleveland crew was stellar. The Indians didn't conduct open tryouts, where everybody this side of Sam Malone tended to request an audition. Instead, Hart said his staff made approximately 800 phone calls to locate replacement candidates. Maybe he should have called a 900 number instead.

A few weeks back, Hart and Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette participated in a celebrity snow-skiing event in New England.

While the pair tossed back a cold one in the lodge bar, they spotted former big-league pitcher Mark Fidrych. A light bulb appeared over their noggins. Duquette was faster on the draw.

"Fidrych! That's my guy," Duquette said, bolting from his bar stool.

He unsuccessfully petitioned Fidrych to sign as a replacement player. Fidrych hasn't played in the majors since 1980.


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