He is the most physically inconvenienced, the most financially abused, too often the least considered and probably the most important person in all of baseball. He is the fan. Oh, the owners and players pay him lip service. "Sure, fans have a right to boo. They paid their way in," says the player, all tolerance, meanwhile gnashing his teeth under what he really considers the lash of their unjustified hostility. "We owe everything to the fans," says the owner, full of gratitude—and then goes off to grouse over their disloyal reluctance to embrace his product, no matter how shabby it might be. But the fan does pay his way in, and booing or cheering is his paid-up right. Without him in appreciable numbers, the owner would owe the bank. But are the owners and players altogether aware of the fan's needs, his desires, his often irrational faith? Probably not, although the breach may be closing.
During the wrangling between baseball's management and its Players Association over the question of the reserve clause, the fan has been used to lend a good name to any number of self-serving viewpoints. If wages increase, say the owners, ticket prices must rise. Curious, say the players. How come when Oakland Owner Charles O. Finley imposed the maximum salary decreases on most of his starting lineup this season, he also raised his prices? If the players are to roam unfettered by reserve obligations, say the owners, they will not remain in one town long enough for the fans to learn their names. Bosh, say the players; bartering owners are the ones responsible for our already nomadic existence.
Through it all the fan remains as loyal as a spaniel. Nearly 30 million persons attended major league games last season, although there was only one tight race in the four divisions. Had there been closer competition in any of the other three divisions or better weather during the rain-soaked final days of the dramatic race in the American League East, attendance surely would have exceeded the record of 30.1 million set in 1973. National enthusiasm for the game did reach a record peak when Boston and Cincinnati met in one of the most thrilling and skillfully played of World Series.
The taste of that delicious event was still being savored when those incorrigible combatants—the owners and players—had at one another again. Did the fans complain? Yes, a little. But there is a suspicion that the labor turmoil interested most fans not a whit. How dreary the sports pages must have seemed to them early this spring with all those photographs of solemn men in business suits who looked like delegates to the SALT negotiations, with all those columns of figures that had nothing to do with batting averages.
The only money the fan cares about is his own, the only contract he is interested in is the unsigned one he has with the game: to be entertained. Only when it appeared that spring training would be a fatality and opening day might be delayed did he become aroused. Let them squabble all they want, but don't take away my season was the sentiment expressed over and over by vacationing fans in Cactus and Grapefruit League ball parks and bars during early March. Then the commissioner, supposedly speaking in the fans' name, stepped forward to assure them the show would go on. Fine, fine, but where had this guy been during all the fuss?
In some ways the fan is the best part of the game, for in his person are stored its history and tradition. Consider the following conversation in the stands during an exhibition game between the Cubs and A's in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Florid fellow in cowboy hat downing fourth beer: "I'm from the North Side. Lived only a few blocks from Wrigley Field. I tell you...Stan Hack, Old Gabby, Jolly Cholly. Those were the days...."
Oldtimer one row forward: "Young fella, I watched them build Wrigley Field back in '14."
Florid fellow: "Oh."
A few years ago there seemed to be an estrangement developing between the fan and player, a severing of the sacred bond between idolater and idol. This was manifested in some unfortunate grandstand rioting that spilled over onto the diamonds. The Rangers were menaced by hordes of trespassing Texas bleacherites in one game. In another, beverages were poured from above on the prostrate form of an injured Houston outfielder. And for almost an entire season Cincinnati's Pete Rose became the target of debris pitchers around the National League. Sociologists began pondering the matter. Did the fan, underpaid and overcharged, harbor resentment against the young plutocrats hired at exorbitant sums to entertain him? Were those grinning popinjays in the television commercials considered unworthy successors to Pepper Martin and Big Poison Waner? Nah. It turns out the nastiness was merely an aberration. The fan soon suppressed his riotous instincts and returned to harmless partisanship.
The fan should not, of course, be identified only as "he." He is often a she, and he or she may be of any age. Some team demographers rejoice over statistics demonstrating that their patrons are getting younger and younger. Baseball suffered too long under the slander that only old men came to watch it. No, the fan is not of a single mind or a single sex, but he or she has a single purpose: to be happy.
There are encouraging signs that the owners and players are gaining a better understanding of this. Players, many of whom not long ago performed as if exhibiting the merest trace of emotion was to violate some clubhouse code of ethics, are now recognizing that what they are in is the entertainment game. How rewarding it is to see a Reggie Jackson doff his cap and prance in self-celebration after a homer. How cheering it is to see a Jose Cardenal hoist a ball aloft after a difficult catch in the Cubs outfield. "Hot dog" was once a term of derision in the dugout. A player who drew attention to his person was considered a shameless exhibitionist. Now he is recognized as one who knows on which side his bread is buttered. Quiet self-confidence was once the manly virtue. Now we have a John Montefusco, the Giants' excellent young pitcher, boasting like a latter-day Benvenuto Cellini. It still staggers traditionalists to hear players un-blushingly describe themselves as "entertainers," but that is precisely what more and more of them are saying.
And the owners seem to be acting less like squires of the manor. Bill Veeck, bless his showboat hide, is not above commandeering the ball park public-address system to talk to his customers. And neither is that hamburger man, Ray Kroc, who owns the Padres. New owners like the Giants' Bob Lurie even talk of improving such things as the hot dog—the edible, not the athletic, kind.
It would be nice if all this were done out of gratitude for the fan's loyalty instead of from the realization that it is good business. But either way, the fan is rewarded, as he should be. Ticket prices may rise and the home team may play shoddily, but the fan will show up. He is the one constant in a changing game; without him there would be no game.
He probably has had his fill of talk about reserve systems, freedom issues and whatnot. The negotiating teams now should play their game in the background, where they belong. The season is what interests the fan, and it is upon us. In the scouting reports that follow, fans can find out what to expect on the field in the months ahead. And they can take close looks at the most outstanding players in both leagues—the Red Sox' Fred Lynn and Jim Rice and the Reds' Joe Morgan.