Walkout won't stop devoted fans from running back

August 14, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The peculiar truth of the baseball strike is that the fans are the ones who caused it.

Even though they're toothless in the fight as it happens, unable to mediate, unable to do anything except sit idly by while the season disappears into a black hole, they're the cause of this strike and every strike.

Because they always come back.

You can look it up. No matter how long a strike lasts, how irritating it is and how many fans pledge never to buy another ticket and support those greedy so-and-sos, the fans always come back in the end. In greater numbers than before.

Thus, the players can scuttle pennant races and walk out in mid-August whistling a happy tune. They know the fans will be there when they come back, wallets in hand.

The owners can go right ahead and bully the players into walking out if they choose, without worrying that their product may be damaged.

There won't be any damage.

Eight work stoppages have cast a pall over the game since the 1960s, but the average attendance has increased in that time from 14,000 to more than 40,000 a game. If the fans are upset, they sure are sly about it.

After the 50-day strike of 1981, the longest interruption of all, the fans responded by setting a major-league attendance record the next year. Instead of being angry and seeking retribution, they seemed to be relieved that they could invest their time and emotions in the season without worrying about it being whacked to pieces. Imagine that.

If the current strike lasts for weeks and skews the season, you'll hear lots of talk about fans taking revenge. Boycott this, boycott that. Maybe it feels good to say it, but it's all a bunch of hooey. If there is one certainty in this mess, it is that the fans will come back.

No, some won't. But the vast majority will. And when they do, they'll give the owners and players the comfort of knowing that another season can be ruined in the same manner if necessary when the next collective bargaining agreement runs out in a few years. Why not? There's no downside. Neither side has anything to lose in a strike, not in the large sense. They can't offend their public even if they tried. And they do try.

Remember when the air traffic controllers went on strike and never got their jobs back? If the players and owners faced such a real-life threat, if they had to worry that their game might cease to exist if they took it away from the fans one more time, they might not do it. You know the players would make more of an effort to find a compromise if the alternative was going out and finding a job.

But neither side has to worry. No matter how much they take the fans for granted, their game is safe. No fan insurrection ever will amount to anything more than microscopic.

It is the worst of ironies: The fans' loyalty is the leverage that enables the players and owners to take the game away from the fans.

Blaming the fans is easy enough. They're venomously disrespected by both sides; the level of disdain in the clubhouses would shock them. They don't care. They continue to buy more expensive tickets to pay for the soaring, off-putting player salaries. They don't care. They continue to buy the notion of the "home" team as players move from city to city seeking the highest bidder. They don't care. Just give them their tickets and they're happy.

Put it that way and it's hard to shed a tear for them even as they are commonly portrayed as the big losers in a strike. When someone loathes you, as the players and owners surely loathe them, you're asking for trouble if you don't fight back.

But don't count me among the many who fault them. Fans keep coming back after strikes because, more than anything, they just want a ballgame to watch. Why should it have to be more complicated than that? Why should it have to be political? Why should it have to come with moral strings attached? Life is hard enough already. Baseball is supposed to be the fun part.

Is it a crime to love a game? No. It's not a crime. The fans' devotion is beautiful. The game is the thing with them. They love it no matter how much the owners and players rob it of its joy. They love it more than they love the people who populate it. As well they should.

It is simply an unfortunate twist of fate that their blind loyalty gives the players and owners the solid ground on which to take the game away. But baseball fans were around long before there were these labor disputes. The players and owners forced the fans into this no-win corner. The players and owners are the ones who have poisoned the atmosphere. The fans didn't do it.

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