The fans' clear message to the majors - Don't you dare

Thursday, July 18, 2002

Barry Bonds, bionic? To puff the All-Star home run derby, baseball's marketers created an animated television commercial. Every cartoon/player came with exploding biceps, triceps, pecs, lats. This side of Brooke Shields, never have eyebrows looked more menacing. And we saw through the flesh and bone of Bonds' shoulder a framework of metal.

Titanium? So now we know -- Barry's juice is WD-40.

A tie? As Tom Hanks almost said, "There's no tying in baseball."

Ted Williams, cryonic? First the great man's perverse son, John Henry Williams, 33, conned the Red Sox into putting him on a minor league roster. Now he wants to freeze-dry his dad. Here's what Teddy Ballgame would say when thawed out in a hundred years: "That idiot kid of mine got a hit yet?"

Just having a laugh.

To keep from crying.

It was only last September that our ballparks became cathedrals for mourning and resolve. This September they may be warehouses, empty.

Last September, we read Curt Schilling's "Letter to America" in which the Diamondbacks pitcher wrote players would honor victims of Sept. 11 by doing their jobs in hopes of finding "some small way to say thank you, and that we won't forget you or your loved ones."

Now we hear Schilling wonder if owners and players are so obsessively ideological as to be masochistic. A work stoppage such as the 232-day strike in 1994 "and the game would never be the same," Schilling said at a press conference before the All-Star Game. "I want to play five or six more years. I don't want to play five or six more years in front of 7,000 people."

Andrew Zimbalist, the Smith College professor and baseball economics analyst, believes the consequences of another shutdown would be "rather severe." If another World Series were canceled, the game would recover just as it did by 1998, he says, "but much more slowly this time."

This time, there would be no Cal Ripken Jr. chasing Lou Gehrig, no Sammy Sosa chasing Mark McGwire chasing Roger Maris.

More important, it says here, the fans have all but had it. They're running dry on forgiveness. Schilling's apocalyptic vision of 40,000 empty seats in every ballpark is not his alone.

Bill Veeck always said the proof of baseball's greatness as a game is that it "survives the fools who run it." But what if the fans' anger at the fools' current mishandling of the game coincided with a national anger at an epidemic of cooked-books corruption in big business?

What if those fans who considered baseball selfless in September 2001 were to realize they'd been gulled by liars? What if billionaire owners and millionaire players stood revealed as selfishness incarnate?

As measure of how close we are to all that, the most important press conference of All-Star week may not have involved Schilling or Donald Fehr or Bud Selig. How about Bob May and Jeff Santaite?

They're fans.

They're nobodies.

Which is to say they're Everybody.

They're Everybody who ever bought a ticket, a scorecard, a hot dog and a soft drink.

Santaite came to Milwaukee from Florida and May from Texas to represent their organizations, MLB Fan Strike and Baseball Fans Unite International. Yes, yes, these angry-fan organizations are non-stories; they spring up during every labor-management spat. If sportswriters notice them at all, it's to think these people should get a life. They're Quixotes tilting at windmills with baseball bats.

But not this time. It feels different. This time it feels like the fans are a step away from exacting vengeance.

Though the fans' crusade has earned national attention--from USA Today, The Dallas Morning News, CNN, National Public Radio and others -- only three reporters showed up for the May/Santaite press conference in the media hotel the day before the All-Star Game. The media's loss, that.

"In the tough economic times that the country has endured recently," Santaite said, "baseball has only become more greedy. ... When the average American is providing for his or her family on $50,000 a year, and we see multimillionaires crying about `what is fair' and `fighting for their rights,' well, this message just does not find a sympathetic ear."

May said owners have "displayed a level of greed that is incomprehensible." And fans "have sat in silence for far too long -- through eight work stoppages. We will not do so again. There is massive discontent among fans in every major league city and throughout the United States and Canada."

Along with a group called We The Fans, the May/Santaite organizations called for a boycott of games last Thursday and on August 1 to demonstrate the fans' resolve. Should there be a work stoppage, there will be calls for as many boycotts as games canceled.

May, 60, is a retired businessman, a grandfather of five who can tell you the players he saw at his first big-league game ("On the unbelievably green grass of Fenway Park, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky ... ").

He can't say a work stoppage would mean he'd never attend another game. "Grandfathers do have duties," he said. Then, with a chuckle: "But I know a lot of people who say, `Wouldn't it be great if these players had to go back to getting winter jobs?' "

Dave Kindred is a columnist for The Sporting News.

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