Baseball's trend- Empty seats, strike talks

Sunday, June 2, 2002

Not that you should necessarily care, but I've been a working stiff at two major league ball games this year.

The first was April 5 at Baltimore, a couple of days into the season. The Red Sox were in town for a three-game series. The Red Sox who have historically been a huge draw in the Baltimore-Washington area. The Red Sox who boast Pedro and Manny and Nomar on their payroll.

The Red Sox who that night lured an announced turnout of 31,261 to the former cash cow known as Camden Yards -- nearly 17,000 shy of capacity.

My second outing was May 7 in Atlanta. The Dodgers were making their only visit of the season to Turner Field. The estimable Brian Jordan was returning to Fulton County for the first time since the Braves traded him away last January. Tom Glavine, an artiste of the first order, was starting for the A-Braves.

A scattered crowd of 26,914 showed up.

Which left nearly 24,000 empties at the Ted.

Baseball is in trouble. You can tell by the number of vacancies in ball yards from Shea to Chavez Ravine. You can tell by the storm clouds forming above the cartoon-balloon bursts of rhetoric flowing from the lips of Bud Selig and Donald Fehr.

You can tell by the disconnect so many people feel nowadays from the national passed time.

Baseball attendance is down about five percent across the board so far this season. Of the 13 teams with recent-vintage stadiums, 11 have lower turnstile counts. That's ominous stuff. The sport's hierarchy blames cold weather and trots out the standard line that first-quarter games don't draw well -- and, yeah, it was chilly April 5 at Camden Yards, and May 7 was a school night in Atlanta.

But there's more to this decline than thermometers and homework assignments.

"Baseball's overall problem is that people just see it in turmoil," Arthur Bernstein, president of an Internet-based fan-advocacy group, said recently. "From contraction to the labor problems to the small-market/big-market thing, they have a lot of problems."

Why should you invest in baseball if the game flirts with blowing itself up? Answer: You probably shouldn't -- not unless you absolutely must have a last glimpse of Leo Mazzone rocking on the Braves' bench before the bats, balls, resin bags and Creatine are stowed away and the lights are dimmed sometime in August or September.

That's where we're headed. The interminable cold war between management and labor is heating up once again, and the union's Nos. 1 (Fehr) and 2 (Gene Orza) guys both confirm preliminary discussions have been held with players about setting a strike date.

"Nobody wants to have one," Fehr told the Chicago Tribune last week. "Nobody wants to even think about it." But the owners and players can't seem to steer away from their collision course. The owners -- fronted by their car salesman/commissioner Selig -- have been stacking the deck more than Newman and Redford in "The Sting." The players are responding by signaling their willingness to call a preemptive strike rather than be stripped bare of leverage.

If this sounds like 1994 all over again, it should. Baseball shut down Aug. 12 that year -- lost the World Series and a slice of its fan base -- when the players struck in advance of a feared off-season lockout. The issues have changed some. The mistrust each side feels for the other has not.

The players will get most of the blame if there is a work stoppage, but the owners picked this fight. Beginning with Selig's contraction-plans announcement -- less than 24 hours after the final pitch of a remarkable 2001 World Series -- the owners have taken step after provocative step to back the players into a hot corner.

With no labor agreement in place, the owners advanced a concept -- without first running the idea past the players -- that would eliminate the Montreal and Minnesota franchises and then devised a revenue-sharing scheme that would force the richest teams to slash salaries. The union opposes any loss of jobs or income. The owners cry red ink.

The consumer stays home. Might be a trend.

Bob Lipper is a sports columnist for the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch

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