Or is it? Game may never be the same

April 26, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Opening Day. Ain't it grand?

Replacement umps. Starting pitchers on a five-inning limit. And an opponent that dumped its Cy Young Award winner, center fielder and catcher in classic small-market style.

Yes, everything is up to date in Kansas City. Those savvy Royals not only rid themselves of David Cone, Brian McRae and Mike Macfarlane, but also avoided a fan boycott by offering free general admission tickets to their first four games.

Please, not a word from the egghead sentimentalists about how the grass will grow, the flowers will bloom and the birds will sing now that baseball is back.

Baseball isn't back.

Not now. And maybe not ever.

Baseball is Mike Mussina pitching two-hit ball for eight innings. That's what happened last Opening Day against Kansas City, and it could not have been more stirring, the way Mussina had struggled all spring.

Today, coming off an abbreviated spring training, Mussina will be thrilled to complete five innings. Get ready for three weeks of Relievers on Parade, starring the Jesse Oroscos of the world.

A fine way to reintroduce the game to the public.

Happy New Year -- that's what broadcaster Ernie Harwell always says on Opening Day. Alas, it won't be that happy for the national pastime, seeing as how it's coming off an eight-month hangover.

Oh, nothing will change in Baltimore, where baseball is king and the Orioles are knights in shining armor -- spanking new armor, courtesy of Peter "Armani" Angelos, now available at a concession stand near you.

A merchandising ploy? Of course. But the Orioles are rapidly turning into marketing misfits. A lack of fan interest forced them to cancel two exhibition games. And now a player revolt has forced them to ditch their hideous gray caps.

Which isn't to say they won't sell. Baseball is the only major professional sport in Baltimore. We've got nothing else to do, except be NFL stooges. But when it comes to the game's health, we're a fluke, an aberration, a mirage.

Let's see how the fans respond in the small-market cities where superstars are as extinct as dinosaurs -- Kansas City, Montreal, Milwaukee.

And let's see how they respond in the large-market cities where competition for the entertainment dollar is fierce -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago.

Baseball is 162 games -- not 144, or however many they played last season. Baseball is the World Series. Baseball is a kid following his favorite player year after year, and not worrying if some stupid economic system will force him to change teams.

Want to hear something crazy? Of the 28 players named to the 1992 National League All-Star team, 20 are now retired or with different clubs. That's almost a 75 percent turnover. And these are the game's best players.

The AL turnover was less dramatic -- only seven of the 29 All-Stars have switched clubs since '92 -- but that team had younger players. Combine the two squads, and 47 percent of the '92 All-Stars have relocated. That's absurd.

Look at the Orioles. Their 25-man Opening Day roster last season included 10 players who weren't with the club the previous April. Their 28-man roster this season features 12. Some turnover is inevitable. But nearly half the team, every season? It's too much.

Quick, name Jim Abbott's new team.

Terry Pendleton's.

Benito Santiago's.

The answers are the Chicago White Sox, Florida Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, for those of you still keeping score.

It's a vicious cycle: Small-market teams can't keep their

high-salaried players without revenue sharing.

The owners won't agree to revenue sharing unless the players agree to a salary cap. And the players won't agree to a salary cap because it would limit their earning potential.

As if that's not happening, anyway.

As if the owners aren't rejoicing.

The question is not whether baseball will recover today, tomorrow or in the weeks that follow. The question is what will become of this sport in five years, in 10 years, in 20, when the erosion of the fan base truly begins to take effect.

The kids aren't dumb. They're watching other sports now. Baseball lost them long before the strike. Baseball lost them because it declared war on its players, rather than promote them. Baseball lost them because it can't get out of its own way.

All these cutesy, touchy-feely promotions you're seeing now -- the ticket giveaways, the autograph sessions -- that's not how to win the fans back. The way to win the fans back is with a long and sensible labor agreement. The way to win them back is to make the sport accessible again.

This means family outings for under $100. Players signing autographs without Donald Fehr telling them to. Postseason games that end before Letterman.

It means getting back to basics.

L Getting back to baseball, as outrageous as that might sound.

Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller said he recently heard an intriguing fan-friendly idea on a radio talk show. A caller suggested that each team play doubleheaders on 10 Sunday home dates, so that the season could be increased to 154 games.

Who would lose? Not the fans, who'd get two games for the price of one. Not the owners, who'd draw additional concession revenue. And not the players, who could pad their statistics.

The season would have been the same length it was before 1961, making the purists happy. But, of course, such a thing was never discussed. Don't want to make the fans too happy.

So, here we are, Opening Day 1995.

The Orioles open with small-market patsies Kansas City, Minnesota and Milwaukee. They'll start the season 8-0, the Yankees will trade for Randy Johnson, Moises Alou and Jeff Bagwell, and then the race will begin.

Ah, what the heck.

Play ball.

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