The Barnstorming Tour That Never Was
A Don Mattingly "black" jersey.
He's not the only one. Eric Reich, who works for a software company just outside Buffalo, has a Fernando Valenzuela "red" jersey. It's tucked away somewhere in his parents' basement.
The story of the Mattingly and Valenzuela jerseys is both little-known and wonderfully unique to baseball. Why it hasn't been told before is befuddling.
Fifteen years ago, when the baseball strike had already killed a World Series and was threatening to derail the 1995 season, Major League Baseball camps were filled with replacement players, a tale told many times over. But what most people -- even die-hard baseball fans -- don't know is that the Major League Baseball Players Association had a plan of their own: take 120 of their best players, separate them into four teams, and have round-robin tournaments on the weekends in minor league and municipal stadiums. It would curry favor with the fans, there could be some charitable element to it, and it might actually be ... fun. One of the first people they brought on board was Delisanti.
When the players decided to strike almost 16 years ago, Delisanti was a 24 year-old Assistant Clubhouse Manager for the Pirates. He was sitting in his office on August 11th when the phone rang in the seventh inning. It was a Players Association representative calling to tell the player reps that they were going to strike.
"Everyone thought it was going to be five days and the owners would cave," said Delisanti. "They told us to sit tight and we'd be back in a week."
One week became two, two became a month, and Delisanti was left hanging out to dry with no baseball games being played. Eventually, he was let go by the Pirates and returned home to his parents' house in Buffalo, N.Y.
As the strike dragged on into 1995, Delisanti kept in contact with his friends on the Pirates -- Andy Van Slyke, Jim Leyland and Jay Bell -- to gauge the progress of the strike talks. Bell in particular, the union rep for Pittsburgh, told him not to worry, that things would work out.
A few weeks later, Delisanti received a call from the MLBPA. They had hatched the barnstorming plan, and wanted to know if he would be interested in being the equipment manager for the tour. Bell had suggested him for the job. The unemployed Delisanti jumped at the opportunity, even if it meant being blacklisted by the owners.
"Nobody in baseball gave a crap about me except for the players after the Pirates let me go," said Delisanti, who would collect $1200 a week for serving as the equipment manager for the barnstormers. "If you weren't a head of a department during the strike for the Pirates, they just let you go."
The plan was simple: start spring training like the players normally would. The site the MLBPA selected was in Homestead, Fl. In 1992, the Cleveland Indians were going to move their Spring Training to a new stadium in Homestead, but Hurricane Andrew devastated the area and destroyed the facility. By the time 1995 rolled around, Homestead had been rebuilt, but the Indians had since decided to move to Winter Haven instead. Delisanti contacted Reich, then a student at Ryerson University in Canada, to help him run the clubhouses. The two had worked together for the Buffalo Bisons before Delisanti moved to Pittsburgh. Because Reich was employed by a minor league team, he wasn't under the same restrictions as major league employees.
"MLBPA couldn't hire people from MLB teams," explains Reich. "It was adversarial. But David had been relived from his contract for the Pirates and I was in the Triple-A system. We were free agents."
Reich's college professors allowed him to take exams early so he could bolt for Homestead, but Delisanti was finding some trouble back in Buffalo.
"This was 1995, before e-mail and cell phones really were around," he says. The Players Association faxed Delisanti a list of the participants, and he was tasked with getting their sizes for hats, jerseys, pants and helmets. This was where the fun began.
The barnstorming idea was straightforward on paper, but had a lot of moving parts that required Delisanti to create a command central of sorts in his parents' home, where 120 of the game's greatest players would be returning his calls, some answered by his parents. Randy Johnson, for example, had no clue who Delisanti was and told his father to have David him stop calling his house.
"I left my number on his machine, I went out, and he called and my dad answered," explains Delisanti. Johnson eventually came on board after Delisanti asked the MLBPA to call him directly.
Not everyone was as confused or brusque. Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, a childhood idol of Delisanti, turned the information-gathering call into a ten-minute conversation, asking about Delisanti's family, if he went to college, and how he got his job. "He was genuinely concerned about me losing my job," says Delisanti. Mattingly quickly agreed to do the barnstorming tour, as it would mean work for non-players like Delisanti who had lost jobs because of the strike. Other players followed suit. Jeff Bagwell, Ken Caminiti and Craig Biggio of the Astros tried to console him and promised better times were ahead. Baltimore's Mike Mussina was incredibly gracious. "When I talked to him," says Delisanti, "it was like we were best friends.
"Most of the guys wanted to know more about me than the tour. A lot of them felt truly bad that I lost my job because they went on strike."
With the players now in place, Delisanti flew down to Homestead to get the lay of the land and prepare the stadium for the circus associated with 120 of the game's best and brightest being assigned to the same complex. After a truncated Spring Training, the players would fly to Portland, Ore., for the first stop on the barnstorming tour. They would compete in a round-robin tournament over the weekend, then go home until the following weekend, where they would re-convene for the second set of games. They were split into four teams, each assigned a color: Red, Green, Black and Blue. If two payers assigned to the same team wore the same number, they'd both get to wear it. The MLBPA stressed that this was going to be fun. There was no need to stir up controversy.
"You're not going to not give Cal Ripken number eight," explains Delisanti.
Reich, meanwhile, was just as fired up about the tour, readying himself to straighten out lockers and lay out equipment for the superstars. "People were really excited about this barnstorming tour," says Reich. "Back then, there was no interleague play, and the All-Star Game was just one day a year. This was going to be like months of the All-Star Game."
Some players were allowed to take a weekend off here and there if they didn't want to travel across the country, or had other commitments, but, says Reich, "they were all going to do it. Come to the towns, do some charity work and youth clinics, then play Friday to Sunday." Everything, it seemed, was in place for this to happen. Four All-Star teams playing in minor league stadiums, putting on a show for the fans.
And then it all came crashing down.
"I woke up the next day and it was over," says Delisanti. The owners and players had agreed to end the strike just days before the Homestead barnstorming camp was about to break, leaving Delisanti without a job, and Reich facing a return back to chilly Toronto for an ordinary life of college classes.
But the MLBPA had other plans for them. They decided to turn Homestead into a makeshift spring training camp for free agents whose signings never happened because all transactions were frozen during the work stoppage.
"The strike ended and they said, 'we're not going on the tour, but we're going to have the camp down here,' " says Reich. "It was like a convention of the victims of the game, including me and David. The guys there needed to show something to get back into the game."
Over the next six weeks, Delisanti and Reich worked with over 200 free agents in Homestead at a camp tasked with the sole purpose of getting the unsigned players onto teams. One day, Reich recalls, they came upon a box of the barnstorming jerseys as they were packaging up pants and t-shirts to ship off to some senior baseball leagues in Miami.
Delisanti took one of each color. Reich grabbed Fernando Valenzuela's. The rest of the jerseys went to some unknown locale. Possibly destroyed, possibly sitting in the basement of some former senior league player in Miami. Most assuredly, whoever has them doesn't know the story behind why someone would produce a Cal Ripken jersey that doesn't have "Orioles" across the chest.
Two years after being let go by the Pirates, Delisanti went to work for the Brewers, a team that was owned, ironically, by commissioner Bud Selig, a man firmly on the other side of the work stoppage. After a season there, he decided to move back to Buffalo, where he now teaches physical education and coaches the varsity golf and baseball teams. Reich went back to college, did a school project on the barnstorming tour, and now works for a software company.
Had the barnstorming tour gone forward, both men admit their lives would be dramatically different than they are today. Reich believes he would be running a major league clubhouse; Delisanti believes he would have done the same, but ultimately returned to Buffalo to raise a family. Whatever the case may be, one thing remains certain: the game of baseball will probably never come close to anything like the Barnstorming Tour That Never Was. Delisanti and Reich have these artifacts that remind them, whenever they'd like, of what could have been, both for baseball, and for themselves.