Men stopped wearing jackets, ties and fedoras to baseball games
long ago. Trading cards have been preserved in UV-resistant
plastic sheets for so many years that no one even thinks about
wedging them in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. A 10-year-old fan
has yet to watch an early-afternoon World Series game in his
lifetime, and last fall he saw none at all. By the millennium, all
fans as old as 31 will never have known five consecutive seasons
played without some kind of work stoppage.
Baseball last week did not suddenly abdicate its deeply revered
place in America's hearts and minds. Its decline has been under
way for years, in the silent yet corrosive manner of rust. The
playing of the first games of a championship season in more than
eight months only confirmed that decline, like the hanging of a
toe tag long after life has left.
Strange how we can see the game's demise so clearly through the
eyes of a man born in the Dominican Republic, who manages a team
based in Canada and who came to the major leagues before
expansion, artificial turf, designated hitters, arbitration,
renegotiation and alienation. Felipe Alou of the Montreal Expos
sat in the dugout during the Expos' Opening Night game in
Pittsburgh on April 26 and dwelled on the sheer emptiness of
``Something was missing,'' he said after the game. ``A weird
atmosphere. Coming from a foreign country, I gradually came to
understand what baseball meant here, and it was missing tonight. I
was sitting there in the middle of the game thinking we really
have to straighten out the national pastime.''
The very people entrusted with being the caretakers of the game --
the owners and players -- have neglected it. So what did they
expect from the rest of us? Yes, there was a certain amount of joy
over the return of the game. But in ballparks all across the
country people spit on the flag of baseball. The return of the
game was greeted with anger, derision, mockery and -- the worst
insult of all -- indifference.
During the opener in Cincinnati a plane flew over Riverfront
Stadium pulling a banner reading OWNERS & PLAYERS: TO HELL WITH
ALL OF YOU. Fans in Pittsburgh threw the souvenir Pirate flags
they had been given as a peace offering onto the field. In Chicago
they threw souvenir magnets that had the Cub schedule printed on
them. In New York's Shea Stadium last Friday, three fellows,
inspired by Abbie Hoffman's sprinkling of money on the floor of
the New York Stock Exchange in 1967, climbed out of the stands and
threw 150 one- dollar bills around the infield. Baseball, the
agrarian game that once appealed to Everyman, now was regarded as
the arrogant, elite Establishment. Earlier that day, in the annual
embarrassment of riches known as the exchanging of arbitration
figures, Andy Benes of the San Diego Padres, a career 65-68
pitcher coming off a 6-14 season, asked for a $1.4 million raise
to $4.4 million.
The fans threw out insults, too. When the Los Angeles Dodgers and
the Florida Marlins, the first teams to take the field this
season, on April 25, doffed their caps to the crowd in Miami, the
fans booed them. Shortstop Jay Bell of Pittsburgh, pitcher Tom
Glavine of the Atlanta Braves and first baseman Will Clark of the
Texas Rangers -- all of them union representatives - - were booed
in their home parks.
The loudest statement, though, was the deafening silence of the
multitudes who stayed home -- maybe to watch an NBA playoff game
on the tube, surf the Internet or continue pursuing another
diversion that had filled all those months without baseball.
Attendance at the 22 home openers played through Sunday (not
including that of the Colorado Rockies, who moved into smaller
Coors Field) dropped 18.6% from last year, despite various ticket
discounts and promotions that had the feel of one of those
filled-to-overflowing shopping carts marked REDUCED FOR QUICK
Bud Selig, the replacement commissioner who also happens to own
the Milwaukee Brewers, has been the Nostradamus of doom,
predicting for months financial ruin at the greedy hands of the
insatiable players. Why, then, would a Cheesehead support such a
business after listening to all that bleating? Few did. It took
four home games for the Brewers to draw as many people as they did
for their home opener last year.
Selig, the man who announced the cancellation of the 1994 World
Series, strolled among the brats and the beers of the County
Stadium parking lot before Opening Day and found it to be
``exhilarating.'' He said, ``I got a wonderful response,''
obviously not referring to the smallest turnout for a Milwaukee
home opener in 22 years (31,426).
His Brewers, as if proving the fallacy of Selig's
competitive-imbalance postulate, won their first three games,
including both ends of the inaugural home-and-home Bud Bowl -- a
matchup of the clubs whose owners carry the most juice in
baseball. Selig's Brewers bested Jerry Reinsdorf's Chicago White
Sox. Reinsdorf, having chased off high-priced talent in DH Julio
Franco, outfielder Darrin Jackson and pitcher Jack McDowell during
the labor ``war'' that he had predicted almost gleefully, was
rewarded with an 0-4 start in which his Sox were outscored 39-11.
Reinsdorf drew fewer fans than even Selig for his home opener. The
Sox opened to their smallest crowd (31,073) since 1982. It was
typical of how some of the most hard-line owners suffered for the
poison they had spread. Tough guy Wayne Huizenga's Marlins drew
their smallest crowd ever (18,587), on the second day of the
season. David Glass's Kansas City Royals attracted their smallest
Opening Day crowd (24,170) since '84. Carl Pohlad's Minnesota
Twins had their worst-attended opener (26,425) since '78. The
Seattle Mariners, run by local businesses and chaired by John
Ellis, pulled in their smallest opening crowd (34,656) in 14
years, even though the game was the first in Seattle since ceiling
tiles began falling from the Kingdome on July 19.
The rich boys took a hit too. The Toronto Blue Jays drew their
smallest crowd ever at SkyDome (31,070), in their second game. The
Rockies attracted a total of 9,063 fewer people to their first two
games than they did for two exhibition games with replacement
players. Because all teams announce tickets sold rather than a
turnstile count, the actual turnouts were even worse. Atlanta, for
instance, which sold an average of 47,023 tickets a game last
year, sold only 32,045 tickets for its home opener. The Braves
also announced that only 24,091 people actually showed up, but the
club didn't make that mistake again.
The product offered to these flagging numbers of loyalists hardly
inspired future visits. Given the fast-forward three-week spring
training, these were glorified exhibition games -- only more
tedious and more poorly umpired, because it was not until Monday
that owners ended their lockout of major league umps after
reaching agreement on a five-year contract.
Pitchers clearly weren't ready to begin the season. Only two of
the Opening Day starters -- David Cone of Toronto and Ramon
Martinez of Los Angeles -- cracked the 100-pitch barrier. Anyone
who paid to watch master pitchers Greg Maddux of Atlanta or Mike
Mussina of the Baltimore Orioles saw them check out after five
innings and 61 and 49 pitches, respectively. Worst of all, Kevin
Appier of Kansas City was yanked only seven outs away from a no-
hitter. ``It's one of the tragedies of the strike,'' Oriole
pitching coach Mike Flanagan said of Appier's departure. ``You
don't know how many times you're going to be in that position in
your career.'' Or to be in a position to see a no-hitter.
Through the first six days of the season, 585 pitchers appeared in
66 games, or the ridiculous average of about nine pitchers per
game. All those pitching changes (there's an exciting part of the
game, huh, kids?), not to mention the shallow talent of this
pitching pool, contributed to those games' dragging on for an
average of three hours, four minutes. Now, that will cement
baseball's 33-1/3-rpm reputation in a quadruple-speed CD-ROM
Hitters pounded the pitiful pitching for 10.7 runs per game, or an
8% increase over what was already such a staggering rate last year
that it produced Oliver Stone-like juiced-ball conspiracy
theories. ``If the hitters are sharp and the umps aren't calling
strikes,'' said Twin manager Tom Kelly, ``you'll probably see a
No one seemed to know for sure just what a strike was any more.
The owners were so happy to have baseball back that they locked
out the 64 umpires, further diluting the quality of the games. The
owners turned to replacement umps like Bill Deegan, 60, who worked
in the American League so long ago, he called balls and strikes on
Al Kaline. When he judged a wayward eighth-inning pitch to Yankee
first baseman Don Mattingly to be a strike, the Opening Day fans
in New York began chanting, ``Scab! Scab! Scab!''
Managers and players expressed daily frustration with the
replacement umpires. New York Met second baseman Jeff Kent said
they turned the strike zone into a moving ``blob.'' The
Philadelphia Phillies lost a game last Saturday, 3-2 to
Pittsburgh, on a blown call on the bases that cost them a run in
the eighth inning. ``These guys are so ---- bad,'' Phillie
centerfielder Lenny Dykstra said, ``it's scary.''
The owners began to come around last Friday after losing a
decision in front of the Ontario Labor Relations Board -- yes, it
wouldn't be baseball without management lawyers getting their
briefs scorched -- which ruled that the American League cannot use
replacement umpires in Toronto because of a provincial law that
bars replacement workers. On Monday the owners agreed to give the
umpires pay raises ranging from 25% to 37.5%, based on seniority.
Rookie umpires will be guaranteed $100,000, while 30-year veterans
can earn up to $282,500.
Perhaps the game's other scars, like the scabs, will go away in
time, too. The daily rhythm of baseball -- games every day, each
one an opportunity to win back fans -- may be compelling enough to
turn the anger of April into the excitement of September.
For now, all we know for certain is baseball returned to a harsh
landscape, with troublesome signs typified by a scene at Yankee
Stadium on Opening Day. Joe DiMaggio, ever elegant and graceful at
80, dressed in a crisp dark suit, tossed out the first pitch from
a spot in front of the pitcher's mound -- as four replacement
umps looked on.
Later, the Yankees saluted DiMaggio with a video montage on their
message board. Black-and-white images rolled by of this icon,
emblematic of an era with the texture and warmth of the gray
flannel of those old uniforms. From the loudspeakers came the
theme music from Jurassic Park. Prehistoric, indeed.
Gates of Hell
The numbers didn't add up to a successful start of the 1995
season, with attendance off at virtually every ballpark. Here
are the Opening Day and first-week figures, with the percentage
of stadium capacity.
[text not available]