Baseball is all set to strike up that same old tired tune again


DALLAS -- The usual threats and platitudes will serve as background melody for the next baseball strike looming in the on-deck circle. We recognize familiar notes as theme to "The Unfinished Symphony."

It never ends, does it?

Those custodians of the game and keepers of the flame, the lords and kings-ransom salaried stars, are near intractable dispute. A labor issue again intrudes on a sport that both claim is a labor of love until either is asked to own or perform for such puny reward.

Should a strike occur later this summer, it will be the eighth lapse in play within the last 23 years. Baseball being a game of percentages, it would have averaged one work stoppage every 2.75 seasons. Oh, that the Rangers could produce a similar ERA.

Any vision of a future strike can be adapted from those of the past. All the combustible elements are in place: an owners proposal the players don't like; a counterproposal due today which the owners won't accept; much bluster and rhetoric to follow.

Thereafter a shutdown. Then both parties blame the other and make purring noises to soothe the jilted customer. The fan yells that he's mad as hell and won't take it any more.

This is a recording.

A strike appears a self-fulfilling prophesy. Owners claim a solidarity of purpose to save themselves from economic ruin. Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has predicted a strike in 1994 may extend into '95. Listen to a local echo.

Rangers' general partner George W. Bush on Tuesday expressed pessimism that a solution lay nearby.

"I have a very strong sense that if the players go out, the owners won't go back," he said. "There are enough clubs losing money and hemorraging."

Players have been unified for years under the original leadership of Marvin Miller and now his disciple, Donald Fehr. Miller's negotiating modus was simple and severe: never give back any gain earned in bargaining.

Two lines are drawn in the dirt. They criss-cross rather than parallel in a common pattern.

Baseball strikes are grooved to trace the same ruts through repetition. Each side knows his lines by rote. Much posturing and politicking is designed to appease the loyal fan.

Owners will say this is a terrible injustice to our fans, but necessary for long-term stability. The players will say an awful choice was forced upon us, and we feel mighty bad about the people who can't see baseball.

Both will swear they have the best interests of the customer in mind. Plus those part-time people who work a second job flipping burgers or sweeping up the stadium. Each side will wear out several hankies.

Fans, meantime, can be heard in a state of agitation. Many will write stirring letters to the editor. Others will pen nostalgic poems about green grass and the sound of bat on ball. An inevitable call for post-strike boycott shall circulate.

Fans mostly will mutter a lot. Then you know what they'll do? It's what they've always done. They'll come back. Often, more come back than went away.

Therein may lie the reason strikes come 'round with such frequency. There's no terminal damage. The absence of long-term penalty. Neither side suffers irreparable harm.

They shut the game down, accept a brief revenue squeeze, open it up and play again. But no one who went to war and shot it out is seriously lamed.

What's lacking is a sense of an apocalypse. Of going too far in abusing the product. Of crossing some invisible point of no return with the customer.

The mind-set of owners and players fails to compute this variable. Neither feels threatened by backlash. Instead, there's smug knowledge, perhaps on a subconscious level, that fans always return.

Bush didn't buy that concept.

"Saying fans always return is like saying never. There's a point where fans won't always come back. The price you pay comes in different forms. It might be in pyschological turmoil."

That fans' return speaks to the charm of baseball. Try as they might, and look how often they've tried, the custodians can't ruin the game. It will endure.

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