Game returns to field as the healing begins

April 26, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

MIAMI -- The prodigal game returned last night. Major League Baseball was back on the field, a little frayed around the edges and more than a little self-conscious about its tattered image, but back to pick up where it left off so abruptly more than eight months ago.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Florida Marlins began the 1995 season at Joe Robbie Stadium with the usual fanfare -- and an unusual effort to reconnect with a disgruntled public. The entire pre-game show was a veiled apology to baseball's "patient and knowledgeable fans" for the way the game was shut down by the bitter labor dispute.

The reaction was mixed. The pseudo-sellout crowd booed when both teams tipped their caps in a well-orchestrated gesture of conciliation, but the fans broke out in a spontaneous burst of excitement when Marlins center fielder Chuck Carr made a leaping catch for the first out of the game, and they were on their feet for newly signed free agent Terry Pendleton after he debuted with a home run in the second inning.

The Dodgers went on to win, 8-7, on a two-homer performance by 1994 Rookie of the Year Raul Mondesi, But one festive night of baseball probably was not enough to wipe away 256 days of frustration, especially when every baseball fan is aware that the game's labor pains are far from over.

The temporary truce that allowed the season to begin did not include a guarantee that there will not be another work stoppage -- either late this season or in 1996.

"We're not out of the woods yet," said Pendleton. "The telltale will be the next week or two. Opening Day is Opening Day. Everybody wants to be there at the start of the season. It's the later games where you find out if the fans are really coming back."

Opening nighters in South Florida had to cross a picket line just to get into the game. Locked-out major-league umpires carried signs outside the stadium to remind everyone that they also have become victims of baseball's hostile economic environment. The game was officiated by college and minor-league umpires.

"We don't want to stop the games," said 21-year major-league umpire Rich Garcia. "We're not asking the players not to play. That would be ridiculous. That would be bad for the game and the fans. We just feel we aren't being treated with respect by a group of people who are new to the game and don't know what we do."

It is against this backdrop that baseball has begun a campaign to make people forget that the game forgot them. But there are those who wonder if Major League Baseball's new slogan, "Welcome to the Show," will capture angry fans' imagination.

"How about: 'We're back, for now,' " offered one cynical club employee.

Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller, who called the game for ESPN, even had a suggestion, though it had to be sanitized for public consumption.

"I was thinking of something like, 'Sorry you're [angry] off,' " Miller said.

So the fans came back. Maybe not in the numbers that the Marlins would have liked -- despite the proclaimed sellout, there were thousands of empty seats -- but they came back in numbers large enough to illustrate that the game will weather this storm as it has every other crisis that has threatened its fan following. The 1981 season was interrupted for 50 days, but the 1980s were a period of unprecedented attendance and revenue growth. The 1990 season started late, but there was not an appreciable drop in overall attendance.

This time, however, the players and owners cannot take that for granted. The 1994 season was cut short by two months and the World Series went unplayed for the first time in 90 years.

"We as players are very appreciative that the fans have decided to forgive us and come to Opening Day," said Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza. "I don't care who you think is right or wrong. It is the national pastime. It's a tradition. No matter how many people try to interfere with that, I think the game is bigger than that."

The game got bigger as the night went on. Pendleton's home run rated him the first standing ovation of 1995, but the Dodgers scored three runs off Florida starter John Burkett in the fifth lTC inning to break a 2-2 tie and carry them to their first real victory since early August.

"It's time to give the game back to who it belongs . . . the fans," said Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. "This game doesn't belong to the owners or the players. It belongs to the fans. We're giving them back what they want."

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