THE PLAY'S THE THING FANS WHO BOYCOTT THE BALLPARK ARE MISSING SURPRISING DEVELOPMENTS ON THE FIELD

July 09, 1995

Come out of that closet, disenfranchised baseball fan, and
listen up. You know who you are. You're the one who has stopped
going to the ballpark. You don't dare stretch a dollar or a
vocal cord in support of owners or players, not after they shut
down the game for 8-1/2 months and iced the World Series last fall.

Yes, you're proud that at week's end attendance was down 20%
from a comparable period in 1994, proud that you didn't come
rushing back as you did in 1982. That was the year baseball set
an attendance record (broken many times since) the season after
a 50-day strike. "I think the fans are trying to teach us all a
lesson," says San Francisco Giant president Peter Magowan. "They
won't come back until they feel we're properly spanked--and that
could be after a whole season goes by."

In the meantime, when you think no one is looking, you flick on
the tube to watch a game. Strike fallout? Not on ESPN: The drop
in its baseball ratings is almost imperceptible (.1 of one
rating point, or 66,100 homes, as of last week) with a clear
spike upward ever since the NBA carnival folded its tent for the
year. (Despite all the hoopla, the NBA Finals, with a 13.9
overall rating, once again didn't come close to pulling down
World Series numbers, a 20.2 overall rating for the past four
Series.) The ratings for local baseball telecasts have been
healthy too, "which indicates people are interested in baseball
and still interested in the team they root for," says
Philadelphia Phillie president Bill Giles.

You don't dare talk baseball around the watercooler, not unless
someone else gripes about it first. You tell your colleagues you
are tired of the O.J. trial, you floss regularly, you've never
seen Baywatch, and you don't care about baseball anymore--which
reminds you to check the box scores to see how your Rotisserie
players did last night.

You were happy to see that Luke Perry, one of many celebrities
asked by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY to define what's cool and uncool
these days, picked the old national pastime as the epitome of
lameness. But on second thought, that worries you, this
validation from Luke Perry.

You wonder just what it will take for baseball to be cool again.
So far some terrific story lines haven't been enough. Chief
among them have been the phenomenal impact of Japanese pitcher
Hideo Nomo, the Los Angeles Dodger rookie who led the National
League with 109 strikeouts through Sunday; the thunderous
comebacks from injuries by Ron Gant of the Cincinnati Reds and
Mark McGwire of the Oakland A's, who combined for nine homers
last year and at week's end were leading their leagues with 18
and 22, respectively; and nearly everything about the Cleveland
Indians (page 24), whose runaway success this season included
designated hitter Eddie Murray's becoming last Friday the 20th
major leaguer to get 3,000 hits.

The opportunity for you to resurface has arrived, as baseball
has moved to the forefront of the professional sports stage.
With school, the NBA and the NHL all on recess, baseball reaches
its traditional halfway point next Tuesday with its All-Star
showcase, which also will mark the major league's 1995 debut on
network TV. (Think about this: Over the past 11 months Salman
Rushdie has been on network TV more than big league baseball.)

This year you treated the All-Star balloting like a primary
election for a city council seat. The total votes cast
(5,808,000) didn't even match the support Ken Griffey Jr. alone
received (6,079,688) in '94, when more than 14 million ballots
were punched overall.

"I think it's a critical time," says Pittsburgh Pirate coach
Tommy Sandt. "We need some pennant races, somebody getting hot,
somebody to get on a hitting streak, to get interest back in the
game."

Consider last week a sneak preview. In five of the six
divisions, the first-place team played a series against its
closest pursuer, with three of those matchups falling over the
Fourth of July weekend, typically among the biggest drawing
weekends of the season. For those of you who think of
replacement commissioner Bud Selig and union executive director
Donald Fehr when your thoughts turn to baseball, the showdowns
stood as affirmations of how grand the game still can be. And
yes, attendance was showing signs of picking up in most places,
though, as Magowan warns, "there should be no satisfaction in
that because it always picks up this time of year."

Because of injuries to star players and the strike's shortening
of the season, which virtually eliminates the pursuit of
important records, baseball needs compelling pennant races more
than ever. It was easy for you to ignore baseball in April and
May. It will be more difficult as July and August define the
pennant drives of September. "I hope there are six great races,"
says Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington, "with
something like 16 of the 28 teams in contention. If that
happens, we should do well."

This will be the first stretch drive with four additional
postseason slots available, thanks to the six-division, two
wild-card format instituted--but not played out--last year.
You may have noticed this gerrymandering allowed nine teams to
be within 5-1/2 games of first place at week's end. Are you
buying it? As a focus group, the fans in Kansas City offered a
bleak response. The Royals, firmly in the wild-card hunt, drew
crowds that averaged only 20,801 for three midweek games with
American League Central -- leading Cleveland, which allowed a
total of three runs while sweeping the series. By Sunday the
Indians had opened a 10-game lead. Excitement is greater where
division leaders at least appear catchable, as we saw last week
when:

-- The Detroit Tigers split four games in Boston to hang within
five games of the American League East-leading Red Sox. Even so,
Tiger manager Sparky Anderson kept talking about the third-place
New York Yankees, who had been expected to dominate the
division. "There isn't a race as long as the Yankees are seven
games back," he says. "Everybody picked us to finish 28th. If we
just finish ahead of one club, we've done good."

-- The California Angels squandered a chance to open some ground
in the American League West by blowing 4-0 and 8-2 leads in two
midweek losses at Texas. "If you want to know how you get to a
pennant race in September," says Ranger outfielder Otis Nixon,
"well, these are the games that get you there." The Angels
salvaged the third game by scoring a major league season-high 20
runs (without hitting a home run), but by week's end, after
dropping two of three to Oakland, they were tied for first with
Texas.

-- In the National League East the second-place Atlanta Braves won
two of the first three games of a four-game series in
Philadelphia that was so big The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
printed Super Bowl-style position-by-position comparisons. The
series opened last Friday before 32,281 fans, or 15,242 fewer
people than attended the Friday night opener to a similarly
hyped series at roughly the same point in the 1994 schedule. The
Braves had sliced the Phillies' lead to two games heading into
Monday night's finale.

-- The Dodgers drew 171,917 to Chavez Ravine while splitting a
four-game series with the Colorado Rockies in what has fast
developed into a juicy National League West rivalry. "It's no
secret the two teams don't like each other," says catcher Mike
Piazza, whose Dodgers had traded places with the Rockies at the
top of the division six times in the last seven days through
Sunday. Colorado, a contender in only its third season, is flush
with the cash and goodwill generated by gorgeous new Coors
Field. Try telling Rocky fans baseball is passe. Winning teams
and attractive stadiums still sell.

"Yeah, it's important to get a labor agreement, but I don't hear
much about that," says Minnesota Twin general manager Terry
Ryan, analyzing his team's woeful 14,786 average attendance. "I
hear more about how we're not very good and not getting better."

Listen to Cincinnati pitcher Jeff Brantley talk about what it
will take to get you, the reluctant fan, back: "There's not one
thing that the players can do to solve this thing other than
winning. You can sign 1,000 autographs every day, but there's
still going to be one guy upset because he didn't get one. And
it's not the prices of things at the ballpark, either. You don't
go to a movie theater because the popcorn is 10 cents. You go
because it's showing a great movie. It's the same with baseball."

The season confused you from the start, beginning in media res
instead of on time. Many of the biggest drawing cards in the
game have been hurt: Griffey, Matt Williams, Ozzie Smith, Lenny
Dykstra, Roger Clemens and Juan Gonzalez among them.

You know, too, that the season lacks its proper context, with
only 144 games to be played. No other sport is so enriched by
its past--can you ever recall a conversation in a bar about
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career point total?--and so reliant on the
integrity of its full, 162-game season. The hockey guys canned
half their season, and three people in Saskatoon noticed. You,
though, are saddened to know that no matter how hot McGwire
gets, nobody this year will make a run at the temptress Reggie
Jackson calls Ruth Maris: the season home run record.

You are left with these numbers to extrapolate: a chase by
Chicago Cub first baseman Mark Grace of Earl Webb's 64-year-old
big league record for most doubles in a season (at week's end
Grace, with 33 two-baggers, was on pace to top Webb 77-67); the
possibility of Pirate pitcher Paul Wagner (1-10) becoming the
first 20-game loser in 15 years (Brian Kingman of the A's was
8-20 in 1980); and the monumental, if not entirely exciting,
pursuit by Baltimore Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. of Lou
Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. What will the
networks do with that exactly? A live cut-in of Ripken taking
the field?

Baseball still offers wonderful stories, even if they haven't
dispersed the usual ripples of interest. Two of the hottest
pitchers in the game, for instance, were a Bison and a Buffalo
just last season. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, a 15-game loser
for the Buffalo Bisons in 1994, at week's end led the American
League with a 1.61 ERA while going 5-1 as a starter for Boston.
And Nomo (6-1, 2.05), the former Kintetsu Buffalo of Japan's
Pacific League, who would have been leading his league in ERA
had it not been for the continued brilliance of the Braves' Greg
Maddux, about whom you will brag to your grandchildren: I saw
him pitch. Maddux (8-1) beat Philadelphia 3-1 last Saturday,
while lowering his ERA to 1.78 and extending his streak without
issuing a walk to 41 innings.

You probably did not notice that on the same day, last Thursday,
Wakefield allowed one run in a complete-game afternoon win on
one coast, and then Nomo threw his second straight 13-strikeout
shutout that night on the other coast. "He gets better with
every start," gushes Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda of Nomo.
"Absolutely, the comparisons with Fernando [Valenzuela, in 1981]
are justified. Both of them created a sensation, both have the
fans going crazy."

That may be true at Dodger Stadium, where attendance has gone up
4%, to 38,311, when Nomo has pitched, and souvenir stands pack
$150 Nomo jackets, $50 Nomo sweatshirts, $25 Nomo T-shirts, $15
limited-edition Nomo baseballs, $5 Nomo pennants and $3 Nomo
pins. But except to Japan--where his games are beamed on 13 big
screens around the country--Nomomania hasn't traveled well. He
has pitched in front of an average of 22,505 fans on the road,
slightly less than the combined average of the six parks in
which he has worked. Only 10,313 came out in Pittsburgh on June
14 when he set a Dodger rookie record with 16 punchouts. Hel-lo,
America! Wake up and smell the green tea.

The night after Wakefield and Nomo worked more of their magic,
the two biggest stars of the Bay Area hit ninth-inning home runs
that instantly turned defeat into victory for their teams. At
10:07 p.m. last Friday in San Francisco, Barry Bonds crushed a
three-run home run to give the Giants a win. Across the Bay
Bridge in Oakland, 23 minutes later, McGwire walloped a grand
slam that won a game for the Athletics. It was the 29th
game-ending home run this year--or a "sayonara" as it is known
in Nomo's homeland. There were 34 such dramatic dingers all of
last season. Nonetheless the Bay Area is home to more of you
baseball expatriates than anyplace else. Sayonara, indeed.

Heathcliff Slocumb of Philadelphia and Jose Mesa of Cleveland,
the Wakefield and Nomo of the bullpen set, have emerged from
oblivion and were leading their leagues with 20 saves each.
Montreal Expo lefthander Carlos Perez--the latest sibling of the
Flying Karamazovs of baseball--is a delight to watch pitch. As
the ace of the Royals' four-man rotation, Kevin Appier got a
jump start on what could turn into his first 20-win season,
running up an 11-3 record-two more wins than any other big
league pitcher-through Sunday. Lifelong utility infielders Mike
Benjamin of the Giants (14 hits over three games) and Jeff Manto
of the Orioles (home runs in four consecutive at bats) slugged
their way into the record book.

The season belongs to the little guy. Even while the owners try
to persuade you that the big-market bullies will rule baseball
(page 32), the city of New York has two losing teams that were a
combined 21 games under .500 at week's end. The state of Ohio,
on the other hand, was the center of the baseball universe: two
first-place teams, Cincinnati and Cleveland, that had combined
to win at a .669 clip (81-40). The road to baseball's comeback
is I-71 in either direction.

"I remain optimistic," says Gene Orza, associate general counsel
of the players' union, "because the qualities of the game
transcend its stewards."

Like an ocean tide, baseball churns on relentlessly, its pull on
you greater beneath the surface than above. That hasn't changed.
Baseball's quietest season offers its own pleasures. You don't
know what you're missing.

Or do you?

COLOR PHOTO:COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER PHOTO What's Right About Baseball Rookie ace Hideo Nomo is just one reason the game is better than you think [Hideo Nomo pitching] COLOR PHOTO:DAMIAN STROHMEYER The Tiger-Red Sox series saw Detroit's Cecil Fielder do a250-pound belly flop. [Cecil Fielder diving toward base] COLOR PHOTO:AL TIELEMANS The excitable rookie Perez and the workhorse veteran Appier (right) have brought unusual twists to the game this season. [Carlos Perez pitching]COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER [see caption above--Kevin Appier pitching] COLOR PHOTO:DAVID WALBERG When Reggie Sanders swung a hot bat in June, the Reds took off; despite a shortened season, Grace may double his way past Webb. [Reggie Sanders batting]
COLOR PHOTO:STEPHEN GREEN [see caption above--Mark Grace batting] COLOR PHOTO:AL TIELEMANSPhillie skipper Jim Fregosi gave ump Edward Rapuano Jr. some lip, the evil eye and a cold shoulder. [Jim Fregosi arguing with Edward Rapuano Jr.]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)