At Camden Yards, from clubhouse to concourse, no one feels very game They're out!

August 12, 1994|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Sun Columnist

"It feels like the last game of the season," Jim Poole said during batting practice.

The sky above Camden Yards was gray. The air was humid. The ballpark was filling up, slowly and quietly.

A ballgame was scheduled. Orioles-Red Sox. First of four. Last of four. No one was talking about it. Not the ballplayers. Not the peanut vendors. Not the fans.

Who could think about the game when it was maybe the last game of the season, on the second Thursday in August?

OK, maybe it won't come to that. Hopefully, it won't come to that. The owners always crater, right? Right?

But let's face it, folks, things are looking as bleak as they have in years when negotiators for the players and owners can't even bring themselves to meet on the day before baseball's eighth work stoppage in 22 years.

"It doesn't look good at all," said Poole, the Orioles relief pitcher, toeing the dirt in front of the dugout. "I have to admit, it would feel weird if it turned out we had to play a game tomorrow. It would feel like Opening Day or something."

Four hours before the first pitch, Mike Mussina started clearing out his locker, tossing his belongings into a gym bag. He had a bulging ice pack on his sore ankle, as if he were going to pitch again sometime soon. But his T-shirt read, "On Strike."

Dozens of reporters swarmed the clubhouse and spilled onto the field, a clattering phalanx of hardware and elbows. Ted Koppel went around asking appropriately serious questions.

Poole toured the clubhouse asking his teammates to sign a team jacket, as if he would not see them again anytime soon.

It was the moment to which baseball had been pointing for months. The black hole on the schedule.

"I've been hearing the talk since the season started," Orioles third base coach Jerry Narron said. "I talk to the third basemen, the umpires. They'll ask you what you're going to do during the strike. It's been on people's minds for a long time."

Now, it was here. Outside the ballpark, at a stand where he sells peanuts for a dollar, Roger Shiftlett put down his bullhorn and his sales pitch to talk about getting squashed.

"This is my only source of income," he rasped. "It's a rich man's game now. I can't make any money unless the big guys are up there swinging the bats."

Inside the ballpark, Orioles owner Peter Angelos blinked into a bank of television lights in a spare clubhouse. He asked that Don Fehr and Dick Ravitch, the negotiators, put down their egos. He asked again that his fellow owners open their books and show the world they're really losing money. He called the revenue-sharing plan the owners favor "a baseball club welfare system."

Talk.

"Ravitch, he sounds like he's trying to sell cars," Mussina said.

More talk.

"I think the players are out of line, although it's hard to make sense of it," said Joel Malnik of State College, Pa., sitting in front of the kosher hot dog stand on the main concourse.

Talk, talk, talk.

Everyone was talking yesterday -- everyone except Fehr and Ravitch, the only two people who needed to talk.

Malnik had long ago planned to come down from State College to take in a few games this weekend.

"So, I got one in," he said, shrugging. "Nice ballpark, at least."

In some ways, nothing was different. The fans filled the ballpark. Cheered the starting lineups. Barked the "O" in the national anthem. Cheered the start of the game. Held up a few strike signs, but didn't boo.

Yet the sense of sameness, the sense of this being just another night in a 162-game season, was strictly illusory.

"There's a terrible feeling," Narron said. "Just the uncertainty of it all. The fact that you don't know what's going to happen. The fact that you don't know if you're even going to be playing anymore. It just leaves a terrible feeling in your stomach."

The first pitch was delayed 30 minutes by a soft rain. When the game finally started, it made it through two innings before a thunderstorm hit. The crowd booed the grounds crew as it rolled the tarp back out.

On the main concourse, as the sound of the WBAL Radio broadcast echoed off the walls, Jeffrey Brown wore a bright orange uniform and swept up trash. Another night on the job. But maybe the last night.

"Doesn't feel right," he said. "Doesn't feel right at all. Feels like we might not be coming back this year. I hate that. I just hate it."

The rain delay lasted one hour. Ninety minutes. The rain kept falling. The stands cleared out. People headed home, their interest washed away in a fitting burst of symbolism. What did the game matter anyway?

At 11 o'clock, a couple hundred fans suddenly rushed to the seats by the dugouts. The rain was lessening. Their hair dripped.

"Play ball!" they shouted. "Play ball!"

They kept up the chant for one minute, then another. The rain kept falling. Nobody made a move for the tarp. The chant died out. A few minutes later, the umps called the game.

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