Fans turn out, but say it was close call

Game down to last strike, they say at Wrigley, beyond

August 31, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHICAGO — Late Orioles game: Last night's Orioles-Angels game ended too late to be included in this edition. A report can be found in later editions or at http://www.sunspot.net.

CHICAGO - The sun shined and the fans filed in as baseball backed away from the abyss yesterday, forging a new labor agreement that saved the remainder of the 2002 season and even managed to keep every game on yesterday's schedule intact, starting with the afternoon Chicago Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals contest at the sport's great old reliable, Wrigley Field.

And to Wrigley they came, with more than 36,000 fans crowding in to watch the teams, who comprise one of baseball's best rivalries, go at it without the threat of a work stoppage hanging over everyone's heads.

Amid the blue skies, the scent of hot dogs, the snap of another icy can of beer, and in the distance, the sight of sailboats drifting on Lake Michigan, there was Michael Ulbrict, 31, toting a huge white poster with a handwritten message: "It's a beautiful day for baseball."

"I'm just glad to be here," said Ulbricht, a self-proclaimed diehard Cubs fan who got his tickets months ago.

Ulbricht did not know then that the fate of yesterday's game would not be resolved until late in the morning, when the agreement was finally reached. He did know that he didn't care about the "politics" behind the deal, only that it was a beautiful day for baseball. "There is a God," he said.

Some fans, like Lynn Leake, of St. Louis, exhibited more than a little bit of faith in showing up yesterday. While the season still hung in the balance and the two sides negotiated through the night in Manhattan, Leake, some of his friends and his son, Wesley, 14, loaded up at about 6 a.m. for the five-hour drive to Chicago, believing that a strike would be averted.

"I didn't even go to bed last night," Leake said. "I stayed up all night listening to ESPN. We had faith."

Still, he admitted that there were at least a few doubts and that everyone in his group wore their "civilian clothes" rather than their Cardinals jerseys - just in case.

"So we changed in the parking lot," Leake said, laughing.

But Leake had some misgivings, too, an indication of just how close the sport had come to driving away its loyalists.

"If they had struck for even one day, I would have been done," Leake said.

Three-hundred miles away, outside Comerica Park in downtown Detroit where fans were lining up to buy tickets for last night's game against the Chicago White Sox, longtime Tigers loyalist Bob Griswold echoed Leake's warning.

"I wouldn't come back for years," said Griswold, 37. "Until I have kids of my own and they say, `Daddy, take me to a game.' "

Even then, Griswold said, "I'd probably have taken them to a minor-league game first."

At Wrigley, the crowd was actually a few thousand short of the nearly 40,000 the Cardinals and the Cubs sometimes squeeze into the park, and empty green seats could be spotted everywhere from the box seats to the cheaper upper-deck sections. It seemed to suggest that something was a little amiss, either fan resentment because of the threat to the season or simple fan uncertainty over whether yesterday's game would actually take place.

Joseph McHale, 56, even said the sales of his $1 program were slow.

"I had a feeling they weren't going to strike," McHale said. "But when millionaires get together with billionaires, who knows what could happen? In the long run, if there is a strike, it's the small guy that always suffers. I'm glad they settled up."

It was a feeling echoed elsewhere.

In New York, where heckling is sometimes second nature, commissioner Bud Selig heard it from some disgruntled fans, who offered insults instead of congratulations as he hustled up Park Avenue to a news conference to announce the agreement.

"I don't look unhappy, I hope," he said.

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