Orioles hold breath amid air of doubt

Players seek distraction from labor negotiations as strike deadline nears

`It's on everybody's mind'

Player rep. Johnson says he's not `optimistic or pessimistic' about deal

August 30, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Texas - Inside the Orioles' clubhouse yesterday afternoon, the big-screen television wasn't tuned to CNN or ESPN or any of the news outlets that might provide some information about the labor negotiations in New York.

Three hours before what might have been their final game of the season, most of the team sat glued to the big screen - watching The Rock, a film starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage that features a bitter standoff between the Pentagon and some disgruntled former Marines holding hostages on Alcatraz Island.

At the end of the film, cooler heads prevail, and the Orioles sat there hoping the same thing was happening in Manhattan, where Major League Baseball owners and the players' union threatened to let the game reach its ninth work stoppage since 1972.

The union plans to go on strike today if no agreement is reached.

"There's probably a little more tension in here," said Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons. "I'm definitely a little nervous about it. There's all this uncertainty, and this could be a big thing in my career. Hopefully, I don't take it onto the field."

Jason Johnson, the Orioles' player representative, participated in a conference call during the day, and there was another scheduled for 11 p.m. Johnson didn't hold a special meeting to brief his teammates, but he made himself available for anyone seeking details.

"All I know is there's a long ways to go, and they're still meeting today," Johnson said. "If we find out there's a deal, that's great. Otherwise, we'll walk out tomorrow.

"I'm not really optimistic or pessimistic about it. It's more of a limbo thing. We'll play like the season's going on, and if it doesn't, then we're prepared to strike."

In the Texas Rangers' clubhouse, the tension was even thicker, as clubhouse attendants began handing out cardboard boxes to players to help them pack their belongings. The message from management was clear: If the players go on strike, they won't be welcome inside the ballpark, at least not until a settlement is reached.

The Orioles have kept relations slightly more cordial. The team made arrangements to fly to Anaheim, Calif., last night as scheduled, and if a strike is called, players have been invited to fly back to Baltimore on the team charter.

They will have a 24- to 36-hour window to pack their belongings at Camden Yards, if they so choose. As part of the contingency plan, the players were given only half of their meal money - they get $73.50 per day - for this road trip, with the rest available as long as games are played in Anaheim.

"It's obviously on everybody's minds, and I don't know how it can't be," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "I say it's business as usual, and I wouldn't say it's completely that, but you try as much as you can to keep it that. The players do a pretty good job of keeping in mind what we're trying to do that day, but it's on everybody's mind."

With little substance emerging in the news reports from New York, the players started another movie right before batting practice. By title alone, that film offered a commentary on what could lay ahead for baseball with another extended strike: Tombstone.

Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston, a third-generation major leaguer, said he has seen the recent polls showing baseball's sinking popularity. When he took the field, he found mostly empty green seats inside The Ballpark in Arlington.

"I can understand fans being so frustrated; I'm still a fan, too," he said. "I understand their perspective and why they feel the way they do. If we get this thing resolved in the next day, I think the fans will come back. We have to give them a reason to come back."

Hairston's thoughts yesterday weren't on what he would lose individually with a strike, or what the Orioles will lose as a team, but on the game itself.

"I think baseball would lose a lot," Hairston said. "I hope both sides are able to look at the big picture. This country, people in general, need baseball."

The Orioles took a five-game losing streak into yesterday, but with the strike looming, players had bigger issues on their minds. Several spoke in optimistic terms after what seemed to be a series of positive developments Wednesday.

To a man, the whole team seemed anxious for some good news.

"It's going to be a tough time; it always is," Hargrove said. "And that would be fantastic if, when the game's over tonight, we get back in the clubhouse, and they call and say it's been settled.

"That'd be great. It's never happened that way in the past, it's always gone down to the last hour, last minute."

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