For the fans, empty seats speak louder than any words of disgust

BASEBALL

April 30, 1995|By BUSTER OLNEY

They came back in 1972. They came back in 1981, in 1985, in 1990.

But so far in 1995, unlike in those other seasons of labor strife, baseball fans are staying away, in such numbers that you'd have to wonder if they're major-league fans anymore.

The Toronto Blue Jays drew 31,070 on Thursday, the smallest SkyDome crowd since that facility opened in 1989. Playing host to the Orioles Thursday, the Minnesota Twins drew their smallest Opening Day crowd in the history of the Metrodome. Everywhere, including traditional baseball towns such as St. Louis and Chicago, they have been staying away.

The second-day attendance figures, which may provide a better read of public sentiment because Opening Day is usually such an event, were much worse. The San Diego Padres, who have new ownership and an improved team after making a 12-player deal with the Houston Astros, had a gathering of 7,468 Thursday. The Pittsburgh Pirates announced a paid attendance of 7,047, but those at the game said the actual number was probably about half that.

And the mood of those who have attended has been ugly at times. Texas first baseman Will Clark, an ardent critic of replacement players, was booed by Rangers fans Thursday, even after he homered. Fans booed in San Diego and in Florida. Somebody flew a banner over Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium that read: "Owners & Players -- To Hell With All Of You."

The trend could be temporary. The numbers are certainly diminished, in part, because potential patrons haven't had as much time to plan trips to the ballpark. Normally, they have three or four months for that. This year, they had just three or four weeks.

The fans may return, en masse, once the season starts rolling.

Or maybe they won't. Maybe this is serious.

It's hard to say yet whether the owners and players are getting the message. On the one hand, the players have gone out of their way to accommodate fans this spring. You see Boston Red Sox slugger Jose Canseco standing and signing autographs for hours and the Padres players handing out complimentary caps on Opening Day in San Diego.

On the other hand, you see quotes from Donald Fehr's right-hand man, Gene Orza, who seems to have a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. On consecutive days last week, Orza reportedly complained about possible collusion by the owners and then suggested that the players may not participate in the All-Star Game unless a pension-plan payment is guaranteed by the owners.

These are legitimate issues and Orza may be right on both counts, but in the first week of baseball after the long strike, wouldn't it have been better if he simply had shut up?

And after San Diego fans booed the Padres for their miserable play in the opener, second baseman Bip Roberts said: "You go out and show something nice to appreciate them, people quickly shove that back in your face. We don't need those sour apples out there."

In fact, Mr. Roberts, you do need those sour apples. At the present time, those are all the apples you have.

There is still no labor agreement, and the owners have shown little willingness to return to the bargaining table and actually complete the deal that seemed to be within their grasp the first weekend in April. They seem prepared to go through this ugliness again.

The players association, on the other hand, appears much less willing to have another battle. Many players have said they would be reluctant to strike this summer. They appear to have a better understanding of just how angry the fans are, probably because they deal with them face-to-face on a daily basis.

It could be a perfect time for the union to take the high road and sign a more modest collective bargaining agreement just to ensure that the games go on this summer. Fehr could negotiate a settlement and rightly say that he didn't get what he wanted, but that the players realize the game is in real danger.

L And it is in jeopardy. The attendance figures bear that out.

"It's up to them whether they want to come out," said Marlins center fielder Chuck Carr. "We're still going to play hard. It's our job whether they are out there or not. If they're going to hold a grudge. . . ."

He paused.

"They're not going to hold a grudge for 10 years."

Give them much more reason to and they will.

Lasorda can be nimble

The Los Angeles Dodgers are extremely concerned about catcher Mike Piazza, who may have pulled a hamstring Wednesday. As soon as manager Tom Lasorda saw Piazza begin to limp, he jumped off the bench to attend to his star. "If somebody was robbing your Rolls-Royce," Lasorda said, "wouldn't you come out of your house fast?"

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