Strike puts big hurt on little and big fans

September 08, 1994|By Tim Warren

THIS IS what life is like without major-league baseball:

You read the sports section in about five minutes.

The late TV news is over in no time.

The kids, who miss the sport as much as I do, spend endless hours watching baseball videos. They've practically memorized the highlight films of the 1992 and '93 World Series, and I tell them to enjoy the action, since it's likely we won't have a '94 Series. When they weary of highlight films, they'll put on the video for "Sandlot" or "Rookie of the Year" or another baseball film.

We play a lot of baseball in the backyard, during which the boys strut around in various team clothing and pretend they're one star or another. When Nicky, who is 4 1/2 , hit a ball onto the garage roof -- a tremendous shot from a kid who barely weighs 40 pounds -- he pounded the dirt with his bat and proclaimed: "I'm the Big Hurt!" He was referring to the Chicago White Sox's great slugger, Frank Thomas, who carries that nickname. I had to laugh.

Otherwise, things have been pretty grim. It's too early to get excited about college football or pro football; it's still summer, for crying out loud. Mostly, you try not to think about all this foolishness.

This is usually the time of year in which I spend 20 minutes a day going over the box scores and the standings. I'll also try to catch at least five innings of each Orioles game on TV or radio, as well as the baseball highlights on the late TV news.

It sounds like an obligation, but it isn't. I was the kid who learned to read off baseball cards. When the family went on vacation, I'd take along The Baseball Encyclopedia. I'd sit in the back of the station wagon and memorize all the pennant winners dating to 1901.

Now I don't read about baseball. I ignore all the stories about the strike and whatever new developments there may be, for it's clear that settling this dispute quickly has never been a priority for either side.

I remember the two times when my union went out on strike. There was plenty of tough talk and posturing on both sides, but people negotiated seriously. Now, with the baseball strike, negotiations are going so leisurely that you never feel the parties really want to get back to playing baseball. Must be something about so many millionaires -- on both sides -- being involved.

Similarly, I turn off the TV when sports is the next segment of the late news. It saves you from yelling at the set when the sports guy announces, "Well, no news to report on the progress of the baseball strike, now in its [fill in the blank] day."

The kids have stopped asking about the strike. I'm glad because it's difficult to explain a labor action to Matty, the 7-year-old, particularly when he acts more maturely than the principals in the baseball strike. For them, it seems, the absence of major-league baseball is like a kid down the street who moved away. After a while, you forget about him.

But if you've been following the sport for nearly four decades, the absence is not easily forgotten, and a substitute is not quickly found. For example, there have been a lot of stories recently about how disgruntled big-league fans are turning to the minor leagues. The players still care about the game and its fans, we're told. The players aren't full of themselves. Attending a minor-league game is much cheaper than going to, say, an Orioles game.

As one who has been going to minor-league games for years, and has watched them in ballparks from Calgary to Louisville, Ky., to Bowie, I understand this argument -- to a point. Minor-league games are a lot cheaper. Since you're in smaller stadiums, you're closer to the action, which children like. There's a freshness, almost an innocence, to minor-league baseball that is missing at the big-league level.

What you don't get is the skill level. You don't get to see the finest players in the world going against each other. You don't see Cal Ripken or Frank Thomas or Barry Bonds become the best at their positions.

My family went to a Bowie Baysox game the other day. The Bowie team is the Orioles' double-A squad, and it's got several strong major-league prospects. We had seen right fielder Alex Ochoa and center fielder Curtis Goodwin last year at single-A Frederick, and instantly picked them as players to watch. When they play at Camden Yards in a couple years, we can say we saw them when.

But after a few innings at Bowie, the mistakes so common at double-A ball begin to grate. Players miss cut-off throws, or drop easy grounders. While one can celebrate the promise of a young player, one also misses the artistry that first made baseball so appealing. At the game's end, there was no sense of exhilaration that one feels after watching an exciting major-league game.

I really don't know what I'll do when baseball owners and players finally decide to settle this dispute. In previous strikes, fans always talked about boycotting baseball, but I don't see that happening. My kids love going to games and, despite all the foolishness of the current strike, so do I.

I'll just take my cue from the owners and players. They really don't care much about the sport they're involved in, and neither will I.

Tim Warren is book editor for The Sun.

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