Strike looms, and it could be worse than in '81

June 14, 1994|By Frank Dolson | Frank Dolson,Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA -- 13 years ago last Sunday, baseball's nTC longest strike began.

It wasn't the sort of anniversary you celebrate with marching bands or fireworks or pregame speeches at big-league ballparks. So there were no ceremonies to commemorate this historic day in baseball history. Nobody thought to hand out souvenir picket signs or personally autographed Marvin Miller posters before Sunday night's nationally televised game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals at Veterans Stadium.

But this year, of all years, it's impossible to wipe out unpleasant memories of the two-month-long strike of '81 because, with each passing day, baseball is edging closer to what could turn out to be the even longer, more unpleasant strike of '94.

Or to put it another way, don't let the fact that your handy pocket schedule says the season has another 3 1/2 months to go fool you. It's later -- much later -- than you think. Big-league teams may be in the "stretch drive" now and they don't even know it. Could be a club's position in the standings on, say, July 16 or Aug. 1 will determine if it makes the playoffs.

Assuming, of course, that the strike ends in time to have playoffs.

Yes, it's that serious.

"I mean, we've got a war," said Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith, a future Hall of Famer who was a 26-year-old San Diego Padre in '81.

That makes him 39 now, not an ideal age for a professional athlete to donate a few months of his career to the cause.

"I've got a lot of things that I want to do yet" on the baseball field, Smith said.

But he is a realist. He remembers '81. He sees what has happened since then in baseball's increasingly acrimonious relationship between management and labor. He isn't optimistic.

"It's going to happen," he said about the impending strike of '94. "We know it's going to happen. They (the owners) don't want to solve it. I think, at this point, they want to test a strike with the union again.

"It hasn't changed since I've been here. They still negotiate the same way. They want things to change. Well, I think, first of all, your approach to it has to change before anything else can change. They want us to side with them and get into bed with them, but they've never really been honest and straightforward with us."

This is one of the game's oldest and most respected players talking. Listen to him for a while and you come to realize how committed many of these players are and how ugly this fight is likely to get.

How, you wonder, can the Ozzie Smiths of the world, making all that money, be so willing to walk out?

"The Association's in jeopardy," he said. "Players know that, and once they know it, then it's a fight, and we've got to fight. That's just the way it is.

"Sure, some guys don't want to do it. It's going to hurt a lot of guys that have a chance to make a lot of money. But some of the people that have made it possible for players to be where they are right now never reaped the benefits of it. The guys that started it all haven't gotten anything. So somebody has to make the commitment and the sacrifice."

He painted a grim picture, and he was not alone. It's hard to find baseball people these days who think a strike can be averted. And the fear is that it will be a long one -- perhaps wiping out the rest of the season, rendering the current pennant races meaningless. The toughest job a manager may have once a strike deadline is set is keeping his players focused.

"I was kidding with them the other day," Cardinals manager Joe Torre said. "We were getting our butts kicked by Cincinnati, and I said to Gerald Perry, 'It looks like you guys voted to strike and they didn't.' "

But there won't be much to kid about once the deadline looms. What then?

"The only thing you can do is monitor their energy level and their concentration," said Torre, who got on-the-job training in how to handle players in the face of an impending strike as manager of the Mets in '81. "Aside from that, I don't even talk about it or think about it, to be honest with you."

Not yet, anyway. A few weeks from now, it may be impossible for anybody involved in this game to think of much else.

"I'm sure next week you're going to have a lot of stuff coming out," Torre said. "So you just have to remind them it's tough enough to win when you concentrate, but when you're distracted, it's [nearly] impossible."

Phillies manager Jim Fregosi isn't eager to deliver any clubhouse speeches on the subject, either. At least not yet.

"I try to downplay it as much as I can," he said. "There's nothing really you can do."

How about pointing out to his players that they may not have 3 1/2 months to catch the Braves or Expos and that they need to put together some victories in a hurry in the event there is a postseason and they want to be a part of it?

Bad idea, Fregosi thought.

"You start adding all those things together, and all you're going to do is drive yourself nuts and everybody else nuts," he said.

Which, come to think of it, might be a fitting way to mark the anniversary of baseball's longest strike.

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