Baseball blahs

June 15, 1995

Six weeks into the baseball season, and all's not well. That refers not to the Orioles' mediocre record. It refers to the state of baseball itself after the long major league strike. The predicted .. fan revolt has come to pass, even in relatively tranquil Baltimore. Attendance is down significantly in almost all major league ballparks. Where it has increased over the same dates last year, the gains are slight and bought by discount tickets and other giveaways. In some ballparks the average attendance isn't much larger than the number of empty seats at Camden Yards on a week night. A sorry sight in either case.

Considering that more than half the seats at Camden Yards are pre-sold to season ticket holders -- often businesses rather than individuals -- the drop of about 15 percent in attendance there is disturbing. Especially since fans here have less grounds for grudges against either Orioles management or the players themselves as a result of the long strike. If any club owner came out of the disgraceful labor dispute untarnished, it was Peter Angelos. He was a lone voice of reason among baseball management (and often union leaders as well). None of the Oriole players was conspicuous among the greedier players who cared little for the fate of their sport. Continued flat attendance here is the equivalent of sharp drops elsewhere.

It would be comforting to argue that attendance at Camden Yards would be closer to normal by now -- sellouts almost every game -- if the Orioles had not got off to such a bad start. Comforting, but self-deceptive. With the possible exception of Boston, the top two teams in each division aren't doing well at the ticket office, either. The harsh truth is that time isn't healing the wounds inflicted by the strike, at least not quickly.

What will heal them? A couple of hot pennant races late in the season would help, surely. So will speeding up the games, as the owners have agreed to try. But in the long run major league baseball, management and players alike, had better look for some structural solutions. It now seems likely fans will not return to the ballparks in the old numbers as long as they fear having another season ruined by a work stoppage. After all, the confrontation was not settled this spring. There's only a truce.

If anything, the strike made matters worse. Several teams were in shaky financial condition before the strike started. Continued serious losses could be fatal. The union may have avoided a formal salary cap, but market forces in the strike's aftermath had the same effect for many unsigned players. Time is running out.

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