End to strike brings relief, but little joy

April 07, 1995|By BILL TANTON

Baseball is a mess.

The 7 1/2 -month players strike settled nothing. It accomplished nothing.

"The strike didn't do a thing for us," said Boston pitching ace Roger Clemens glumly. "All the end of the strike does is allow me to go back to doing something I love to do. That's play baseball."

So Clemens will be taking the mound for the Red Sox opener April 26, and many of the fans who go to the ballparks will be as uninspired as Clemens.

People may feel relieved by the strike's end, but they're not particularly happy.

They know the owners and the players still have no collective bargaining agreement. They know there could be another strike. That cloud continues to hang over the game.

Those who follow the game closely know that baseball today is a rudderless ship.

But, like Clemens, fans will be able to go back to doing something they love to do. That's watching baseball.

When the Orioles play their home opener at Camden Yards on May 1 or May 2, the stands will be packed, of course. They'll be packed all year.

The Orioles, even in the wake of a 232-day strike, are in an enviable position.

They play in a new ballpark that is the envy of the other clubs and theirs is the only game in town. Those things have a lot to do with the fact that the Orioles in 1993 brought $173 million at auction, the highest price ever paid for a sports team.

No one makes the mistake of thinking the Camden Yards patrons will be there out of unadulterated affection for the game.

As Cal Ripken Sr., then the third base coach, said in 1992, the first year the club played downtown:

"The fans who came to 33rd Street were there to see baseball. The people come here because this is the place to be."

The customers at Camden Yards, happy to be included in the Opening Day party, will be largely oblivious to the difficulties likely to bedevil the game this year.

The players haven't played baseball since last Aug. 12. This eight-month absence from the game is the longest they've experienced since their Little League days.

At the moment the players are gathering in Florida and Arizona, where they will rush through spring training and an abbreviated exhibition season.

DTC Rosters everywhere are unsettled as the general managers scurry about, trying to sign the more than 200 free agents.

Obviously, the level of play at the start of the season will not be as high as usual. You can't accomplish in three weeks what it takes six weeks to do -- especially pitchers.

Not as obviously, but of even greater concern to club ownerships and managements, is that there are likely to be more injuries than usual.

In addition to all that, the regular umpires are out on strike. If the season had started Monday, as it was supposed to, there would have been replacement umpires.

On top of all that, the public will be paying more money than ever for the privilege of attending games.

Baseball says it knows it has a public relations problem. It says it knows it has to win back the fans.

A ticket price increase is not the way to do that.

In Baltimore, it hardly matters, but in many cities it's going to matter a lot. A poll taken this week by Gallup/CNN/USA Today showed that 69 percent of the respondents say they're less interested in following major-league baseball than they were a year ago.

Only 69 percent? Eighty percent would not have been surprising.

The strike didn't just ruin last season. It may have ruined two seasons. Already it has made this one an aberration.

And the game's troubles won't end even if a normal season is played in '96.

Most troubling is the rancor between the players and the owners and their inability to work out a labor agreement.

The two sides don't like each other and don't trust each other. It looks as if a real labor peace is not going to be achieved as long as the present leadership on both sides continues.

Donald Fehr, the gloomy, woe-is-me leader of the players union, is almost impossible to like.

By now the whole country must be sick of the game's acting commissioner, Milwaukee owner Bud Selig, and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who is Edgar Bergen to Selig's Charley McCarthy. At least we can understand why Selig's nickname among the owners is Bud Light.

This whole unfortunate chapter makes you wonder if the game erred by ousting commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992.

Reinsdorf and Selig orchestrated that palace revolt. They thought Vincent was too conciliatory with the players. Now everybody is saying we need conciliation.

Not surprisingly, Vincent is critical of both sides for their failure to work together. He thinks there'll be another strike next year.

"That's Jerry [Reinsdorf] -- let's crush them and turn back the clock 25 years," Vincent told the New York Times. "And Don [Fehr], he hates so badly, too, that it probably takes someone other than him to make the change."

It's hard to be enthused over the start of the season. Long range, it doesn't look any better.

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