Players and owners elicit no sympathy

September 07, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

It was a morning during a previous baseball shutdown. The Baltimore Orioles were assembling in Miami for the spring training adventure of 1976. Only the camp -- and others like it -- weren't going to open. Team owners issued a blanket lockout decree, which meant the players, or highly paid migrant workers, were prohibited from using the regular practice facilities.

Instead, they were more attentive to fishing, golf, jai-alai matches and going to dog tracks as diversions. Some Orioles, including Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton, Mark Belanger, Mike Torrez and Dave Duncan, decided to spend their mornings holding informal drills -- throwing, running, light batting practice. They wouldn't be deterred, even if they were denied entrance to Miami Stadium.

Palmer was on a personally regimented throwing routine, building up his arm strength and starting to gradually spin curveballs . . . all a part of a pitcher's preseason conditioning. Somewhere near the South Florida town of Kendall, specifically Miami-Dade Community College-South, they would gather to engage in their unsupervised workouts.

On a particular day, Palmer wanted to extend the session so Duncan, the catcher, temporarily invited a sportswriter to handle the rest of the warm-up. The Palmer motion was picture-like, the fastball crackling, even though he was only at about 80 percent velocity.

What was memorable was the change-of-pace, not the conventional straight change but thrown off a curveball. It kind of made you feel sorry for hitters who had to cope with it from 60 feet, 6 inches. Just a small glimpse of the Palmer arsenal on his way to the Hall of Fame. Yet it remains a momentous recollection for his part-time batterymate.

"A lot of unusual things happen in baseball, but I never thought the lockout would find me warming up with a newspaper reporter," offered Palmer by way of a practice session postscript. The throwing was over for the day, equipment collected as the group dispersed.

When the Orioles departed, leaving the practice area, it was necessary to make a right turn and across the road, before their eyes, were 16 men and women down in the dirt picking the tomato crop for shipment to northern markets. They were migrant workers, for the most part uneducated, deprived of normal conveniences and subject to the whims of the bosses who extracted a maximum day's effort for a minimum amount of pay . . . piece work at 35 cents a basket.

That scene from the past updates itself as the current baseball strike approaches a month of inactivity. Nothing has really changed. The media has made more of the walkout than the public wants to know, depicting the suspension as some serious deprivation -- as if a plague were sweeping the country or a natural disaster had occurred.

This is all so regrettable. Baseball, pure and simple, is a luxury. Entertainment. It doesn't alter your style of living, one way or the other. What you played as a child was a game. For the major-leaguers it's all dollar signs. There is a difference. It needs to be viewed in that concept for accurate understanding.

All the sobbing occupants of the grandstand are lost to reality as they cry about the game being taken away from them. Even the president asks for a resumption of the season while radio-TV stations express regret, but the suspicion is they are more upset because the lack of broadcasts is cutting into advertising fees.

They fear sponsors may not renew. There's also much ado about part-time employees such as parking attendants, ushers and ticket takers being unemployed. The numbers are minimal when compared to other strikes, ones of importance.

Overall, you would think the mines, steel plants or auto factories had shut down. Baseball, compared to all of the aforementioned, is in a higher financial league per employee. Players, with few exceptions, play for teams in cities where they are just passing through. They don't try any harder for Boston than for Baltimore, Chicago or Los Angeles. It's known as being a professional.

If they resent the analogy, let them realize they are indeed migrant workers yet far different from the ones we watched picking the crops in the fields of Florida. It's about time the adult fans put away the naive attitudes of their adolescent yesteryears. The spectators regard the game as some kind of an heirloom, looking upon it with profound affection and allegiance.

Actually, baseball is not that way. The owners care not for the fans, except what they spend at the box office buying tickets and overpriced food at concession stands. As for the players, most of them believe the crowds are there to offer adulation.

The players, for a true depiction, are migrant workers who use gloves instead of bushel baskets, and have no allegiance to the public or the cities that build expensive parks, courtesy of the taxpayers, to allow the owners to make money under the blackmail threat of leaving.

The only difference is the migrant players are millionaires; the owners the lords of the plantation. It's difficult to join, in spirit, with either side.

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