The real question about baseball: Do we still care?

April 04, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

So this was peace. It wasn't exactly Ripken extending The Streak yet, and it wasn't quite Mussina with the overhand curve or Palmeiro going deep, but at least a few familiar faces showed up at Oriole Park yesterday to talk about the business of baseball and hope that somebody out here actually gives a damn.

On a sunlit noon that should have been Opening Day, this is the great unanswered question: Do we still care? At the end of an eight-month strike, at the beginning of a delayed spring training, who knows who still feels the old emotional tugs, the reverence for the game's marvelous traditions, the impulse to hock the family jewels for two tickets in the bleachers, plus parking, pizza and a couple of beers.

So yesterday, there they were out at home plate, reminding us why everybody should embrace baseball all over again: the governor of Maryland, named Glendening, who declared his undying love for the game and sentimentally computed the reasons in dollars; and then the owner of the Orioles, named Angelos, who mentioned roughly $16 million his ballclub lost owing to the recent unpleasantness.

Nobody brought up such traditional Opening Day fare as batting lineups or pennant hopes, for such talk is considered hopelessly unsophisticated on the day baseball emerges from its labor war. For the moment, nobody pretends this isn't a business. For the moment, here was Parris Glendening, wearing a necktie with baseballs all over it, but he wasn't talking home runs or earned run averages.

More than $75 million in lost baseball-related sales, the governor said. Beyond the outfield fences were all those restaurants and bars which depend on summer ballgames that never were played. More than $25 million in lost employee income, %o Glendening said. Behind his glasses, you could see the little computer whirring inside his head. More than $5 million in lost tax revenues. More than 700 lost jobs.

And the thing he couldn't measure, because no one can yet, is the loss of the old emotional ties between those who support baseball and those we imagined would never do the thing that they did last August, which was to walk away from the game, walk away from the pennant race and the World Series and walk away from all that blather about baseball a part of the great American fabric and blah blah blah.

"I don't think there are too many disgruntled fans in Baltimore," said Peter Angelos. "In fact, 99 percent of our mail has been very supportive of the Orioles."

But Angelos stands alone. Among all club owners, only he refused to put replacement players in major league uniforms. Desecration, he called it. Only he said the owners should at least listen to the ballplayers' side of the bargaining. Blasphemy, the other owners called this, and made veiled threats about repercussions.

Instead, Angelos winds up winning. He wins not only because he called for negotiating when all the others were stonewalling, but also because he stood for something other than raw economics when the going got rough. He talked of the game's integrity when he refused replacement games. He talked of Cal Ripken's pursuit of Lou Gehrig.

Such talk is the language in which baseball has always sold itself, but not lately. Those who market it wish us to think of it and imagine the poetry of grown-ups playing catch with children, of bleacher memories being passed from one generation to the next, of friends telling each other, "Remember the time . . ."

How long will we remember the strike of 1994, and how much has it poisoned the air at the ballpark?

"This is a poignant day," Angelos said, "because it should be Opening Day. But I'm comforted that Ripken's streak has been saved. The game endures. You know, a lot of the owners get a bad rap. This wasn't just about paying the players, it was about wanting to keep ticket prices and concessions under control for the ordinary fan. But I don't see this kind of thing happening again, walking out, walking away from a World Series."

Maybe, maybe not. But those who always assumed such a thing could never happen now know otherwise. A trust has been broken by baseball, and a sense that the game was above such behavior.

The fan, once imagining his emotional investment counted for something, now understands better.

Peace is at hand, but nobody has yet calculated the emotional scars.

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