Season that was strikes at players who could

August 13, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- San Francisco Giants third baseman Matt Williams looked into the camera after his 43rd home run on Wednesday and humbly proclaimed that he was not chasing Roger Maris or anyone else.

That is now true.

Williams, who was on pace to equal the single-season home run record of 61 set by Maris in 1961, went on strike yesterday, perhaps not to return for the remainder of the season. He is one of several players who were on their way to super seasons until TC baseball's latest labor dispute got in the way.

Every day that passes without a settlement will dilute their numbers. Ken Griffey might be proud of 40 home runs for a 162-game schedule, but 50 was a foregone conclusion. After Thursday's game, San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn is just a 5-for-5 performance away from .400. Frank Thomas and Albert Belle are near the top of the American League rankings in home runs, RBIs and batting average, but each may be deprived of a chance to become the majors' first Triple Crown winner since 1967.

This is what collective bargaining has wrought. The most statistically compelling season in decades has been halted by the machinations of Major League Baseball's 28 owners and the union that represents the players.

Who's right?

Who's wrong?

Who cares?

The owners apparently have not made a good case for their impending economic crisis, and the players make so much money that they long since have left behind the real world of lunch pails and timecards. The normal principles -- the ones that union director Donald Fehr cites when he makes his impassioned defense of the free market -- no longer may apply.

What is obvious is that everyone goes down hard this time. The owners have a chance to lose the postseason and the $140 million in broadcast revenues that go with it. The players have begun to lose $6,500 per player per day. The fans can turn to preseason football, but where does that stack up next to Williams and Griffey and Thomas and even the surly guy from Cleveland with the corked bat?

It was quite a show.

Nobody wanted it to end prematurely, but no one could find a way around this, the eighth work stoppage in 23 seasons. The fans may blame the players, because they were the ones who went on strike, but it is obvious that the players are as disappointed as anyone -- perhaps more.

"It's just going to be weird not coming to the ballpark," Griffey said.

New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly seems so discouraged that he told reporters at Yankee Stadium this week that he might not come back, period.

"It [Thursday] could be my last day here," Mattingly said. "We don't know what's going to happen. If this thing goes through the winter and they don't start the season on time and we end up with something that I couldn't accept, I don't know if I would play again at that point."

Mattingly may not be quite the impact player that he was before a back injury forced him to change his style at the plate, but he is batting .304 and was looking forward to the possibility of his first appearance in the postseason.

Still, he stands firm with the players union in the face of what would be a personal injustice.

"If that's my fate, then so be it," he said. "That's the way I feel about it. I'm not going to look back on it and say I should have fought that strike."

Even for the struggling players who sometimes feel the season never will end, it is ending too soon. Orioles outfielder Mike Devereaux has struggled through his most difficult year in the major leagues, and he has a .203 batting average to prove it, but he did not go home happy.

"There's no doubt that this hasn't been one of the favorite seasons of my career," he said, "but I play baseball for a living. I'm not going to be happy about it, but I feel I have to be part of what's good for baseball. What people did in the past before I was playing I have to do for the players of the future."

Still, he rather would be on the field trying to do something about the lackluster numbers that will go into the record book beside his name if the season is not resumed.

"Obviously, I don't want that," he said, "but it would be tough for me to do anything about it during a strike. Then again, a salary cap wouldn't be the best thing for my situation either."

Most of the attention has been focused on a small group of home run hitters, because they will be the ones most damaged statistically. But both the players and fans in some of baseball's newest hot spots are going to feel the sense of loss just as strongly.

In Cleveland, where there has not been a postseason game since 1954, the combination of a strong team and a new stadium had made 1994 a banner year for the Indians. In Montreal, the Expos were confounding conventional wisdom by dominating the National League with a bargain-basement team. Even in Texas, where the Rangers may back into a division title with a losing record, no one wants to see the new Ballpark at Arlington sit idle for the next two months.

Then there are the Orioles, who bounced back from a lengthy slump to hit the strike deadline on a roll. They just were starting to make headway in the AL East when the music stopped.

There is always minor-league ball. The Orioles' farm-league clubs will continue at Frederick and Bowie, and there is a Blue Jays affiliate in Hagerstown, but there are only a little more than three weeks left before the minor-league season is over, too.

If this dismal chapter in baseball's contentious labor relationship runs as long as some people fear, it will be far more disappointing for the fans than any of the seven work stoppages in the previous 22 seasons. Because this time, more than any other, they know what they are missing.

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