Baseball badly needs damage control team

November 22, 1994|By BILL TANTON

Someday, somehow, major-league baseball will return to America. When it does, our national pastime will have one huge public relations problem.

The game's relations with the public just plain stink since the strike that ended the season Aug. 12 and even killed the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

The latest polls show that 58 percent of the public blame the owners, and 61 percent blame the players.

OK, I realize that's more than 100 percent, but it shows how outraged the public is.

Things are so bad that Baltimore's annual midwinter baseball jamboree, otherwise known as the Tops in Sports banquet, is suffering.

Banquet organizers understand the public mood. They know they could fly in ballplayers from all over the Western Hemisphere, as they do every January, only to have them booed.

They're not going to present anyone with the prestigious Babe Ruth Sultan of Swat Trophy, awarded annually to the game's top slugger.

"How can you give it to anybody," asks banquet chairman Frank Sliwka, "when they only played half the season?"

This is not to say there won't be a banquet on Jan. 13, or that there won't be any Orioles there.

"We'll have the banquet," says Sliwka, "and we'll have the usual crowd of 2,000 at the Towson Center. Cal [Ripken] will be there. The new manager [what the heck is that guy's name?] will be there. We'll have Mike Flanagan and Al Bumbry."

But it won't be the same in this baseball climate.

Of greater concern to the lords of the game is whether the fans will return to the ballparks, especially in cities where the clubs are asking the fans to pay for the strike by raising ticket prices.

My feeling is that if 10,000 Orioles season-ticket holders say they've had enough, there will be 11,000 in line the next day to buy their tickets.

Still, baseball can't just sit back and hope the public will understand. Something has to be done to assuage the masses.

I have an idea which I offer free of charge to the commissioner of baseball (what's his name?).

I think baseball should form a damage control squad to tour America and regenerate good feelings about the game.

The idea is for the sport's truly great guys to get out there, meet the public, talk baseball and generally start to get everyone in the mood to embrace the game once again.

My first nominee is Frank Howard, the 6-foot-7, 255-pounder who played 16 years in the majors and has evolved into a career big-league coach. He'll be back coaching with the New York Mets next season, whenever that is.

The idea came to me the other day watching Howard as guest speaker at the November sports luncheon at J. Patrick's.

It seems as if Frank Howard has been around this game for 100 years, yet I'd never spoken to him until now.

I'm not sure why I had shied away. Maybe his size was intimidating. But it was my loss. The man truly is a gentle giant.

Howard came to this neighborhood bar in Locust Point, rolled up his sleeves and talked for 45 minutes with 90-plus fans as if he'd known them all his life. No one enjoyed it more than Frank.

On his left cheek was a long strip of adhesive tape, obviously covering a shaving cut. But that's not how he explained it.

"Twenty-five years ago," he said, "I got clipped with a Jim Palmer fastball and it's just now healing."

Frank Howard was a better player than people may realize. He hit 382 home runs and had a career batting average of .273, a combination that would make him a multi-millionaire today.

"I struck out 1,500 times [actually 1,460 times]," said the self-effacing Howard. "I hold the record for striking out six straight times." (He also

hit 10 home runs in six games.)

When Lennie Miller asked him how far the ball might have gone if he had used an aluminum bat, Howard dismissed the thought.

"Aw, I would have struck out anyway," he said.

Howard was also a better athlete than people today might know. He was an All-America basketball player at Ohio State, which he attended with ex-Baltimore Colt Hall of Famer Jim Parker.

Howard had fun in a playing career that went from 1958-1973. "We didn't make enough money not to have fun," he said.

That feeling shines through when Howard meets people. By the time he left J. Patrick's, people were smiling and thinking warm thoughts about baseball. That's why he's perfect for damage control.

You would want guys who genuinely enjoy meeting people and talking baseball, men like Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield, Robin Yount, Brooks Robinson, Tom Lasorda.

I would add two baseball-loving veterans with long track records of treating the public well -- Joe Garagiola and Rex Barney.

Turn these guys loose on America. Send 'em to clubs, service organizations, churches, schools -- wherever people gather.

If they all have the same effect on people that Frank Howard had in Locust Point, that would be a start toward winning back the public. They have to start somewhere.

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