This fan takes root route with replacement players

March 03, 1995|By H. R. Swardson

Athens, Ohio -- PEOPLE WHO say fans won't turn out to see replacement players don't understand baseball and its appeal to fans like me. They think we don't want to see hitters with weak swings and pitchers with weak arms. It hasn't occurred to them that when a weak hitter faces a weak pitcher the contest is the same.

I love the contest and I want victory in it. When my essentially .220 hitter goes to the plate against an essentially 5.56 ERA pitcher I am not going to be aware of any absolute expertise. I am going to be concentrating on the relative success of the player wearing the color of the team I have been following all these years.

If the ball he hits finds the gap and another mediocre player wearing that color comes around third and makes an imperfect but successful slide into the plate, I am going to cheer happily, and shout encouragement to the next mediocre hitter to bring the first one home. In short, I will be doing the thing that makes a baseball fan: rooting.

Sports columnists and owners and, especially, players, need to extrapolate my behavior. Extend it to all those who go to baseball games not for the spectacle (as so many World Series seat holders do) but for the contest. That will take in a fair number of fans, a number that can be roughly estimated by checking attendance at late-season games between old-time, lower-division teams like the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies.

There you'll find the fans who kept the game going when elite players didn't look so elite. Back in 1937, if Chick Hafey fell down going for a bases-loaded fly ball (he could do that as well as anybody) these fans came back the next day, hoping Chuck Klein would fall down. Just for the satisfaction of a victory. There are still enough fans like me to keep the game going now.

Comparative numbers alone will rouse their interest. I may swear off baseball in disgust, but if the standing after a week shows something interesting about the Cincinnati Reds (say: Won 6, Lost 0), I will be back. I'll get disgusted where it doesn't count, entranced where it does. Can these guys, whoever they are, keep this streak going against the Dodgers? (I know who they are: the blue team, hateful whatever names they sew on).

Interest in the other numbers -- averages, league leaders, new records -- will follow. It will begin, as always, with the changeless box score. I see our third baseman went 3-for-4 against the Dodgers. "Jeez, he's hitting .390. Third in the league!" I start to love him and want to learn more about him. I listen to his radio interviews (he says "I play games one at a time" as well as any star) and look for features about him (he reserved 30 seats for his proud Georgia family at the last game, just like ex-Red Ray Knight). I start rooting for him.

The weight of memory has to be figured into this rooting. Because of the typical baseball fan's intense identification with a city, and because of the way it reveals individual personality, rivalries accumulate a bitterness that no change in talent will relieve. Any New York player now comes under a bitter Cincinnati eye, partly because we, for long the smallest and poorest franchise in the major leagues, got tired of being beat up by wealthy teams and condescended to by sophisticated big city sportswriters and partly because of what New York Giants shortstop Dick Bartell did to Cincinnati Reds shortstop Billy Myers in 1936. Dick Bartell, always a scrapper, slid into second base, which was being covered by Billy Myers, and subsequently got into a fight with the congenial Mr. Myers. Cincinnati fans were livid.

But we settled the score in 1973 when Pete Rose went after New York Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson in the playoffs. Different team, but it was the same city.

In that incident, Pete Rose slid into second base while Bud Harrelson was covering the bag. Mr. Harrelson was pummeled by the burly Mr. Rose who -- out of apparent frustration at his team's failure -- instigated the fight. New York fans were outraged by the incident.

Though the Reds lost that series, the fans did not feel like total losers. "That pays you back for what Bartell did," said Cincinnati fans like me. The embittered New York eye undoubtedly looks for a payback for what Pete Rose did.

If, this season, a replacement New York shortstop slugs a replacement Cincinnati outfielder, will either city's old fans look on indifferently? I think not.

And how about the newspapers the next morning? Replacement players can be just as scrappy, and just as flaky, as better paid players. They will make for good copy; I will read it just as eagerly, and it will make me love (or hate) them just as much.

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