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Waiting is no game for all involved

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Figuring out what they'll do when the labor war ends, that's the easy part. They have big plans for the big day when the owners and players find it within themselves to agree on something.

A blue equipment bag, stuffed with the bats and gloves of San Diego Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn, lies next to the bedroom door of his home in Poway, Calif. Ten minutes after he hears of a settlement, Gwynn says, his pickup truck will be loaded, and he will be on the road to Phoenix for a belated spring training.

Sisters Lois Butler and Catherine Williams, residents of Baltimore for 88 and 85 years, respectively, will adorn their Orioles caps with as many pins as possible before they return to Camden Yards.

Orioles manager Phil Regan will begin managing big-leaguers. Baseball writer and television analyst Peter Gammons will revisit training sites, but this time to discuss pitching rotations and Cal Ripken's consecutive-games streak.

But before any of that, they must continue to endure the hard part: watching an integral part of themselves -- baseball -- cut up by 7 1/2 months of labor strife.

First let's look at the player.

Thank goodness, Tony Gwynn said, for the NCAA basketball tournament -- which has provided precious hours when he can enjoy himself without dwelling on how much he's missing spring training. "This is killing me," he said.

Gwynn has promised Padres manager Bruce Bochy that within six hours of the settlement announcement, he will have covered the nearly 400 miles of highway between his home and Phoenix, where San Diego trains. "Maybe five hours," Gwynn said.

"I miss just getting out there on the field, in the cages," Gwynn said. "The day-to-day grind of baseball. That's what I love. I love going to spring training, getting yourself ready to play 162 games."

Some hit instinctively: See the ball, hit the ball. Gwynn is a hitting technician. He has spent much of his life breaking down each part of his swing: his drop of his hands, the soft step forward with his front foot, the shift of his weight.

Training camp is a laboratory for Gwynn. He and Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund would grab a couple of other players and hide away in a batting cage, building blisters and testing their respective theses.

"I love that," Gwynn said. "I miss that the most."

The other day, he and his son, Anthony, were flipping through channels, killing time, when they found a broadcast of a Los Angeles Dodgers replacement game. Gwynn watched one hitter before he walked out of the room. He couldn't stand it.

"You see a pitcher make a pitch and it should've been crushed and it isn't," he said. "It's frustrating. Anyone who has seen major-league baseball knows it's not the same."

The strike cost Gwynn his chance to hit .400 last year (he finished at .394), and it's damaging his hopes of achieving 3,000 hits. "No question," Gwynn said, "but it doesn't make me feel too bad, because everybody is in the same boat."

But, Gwynn acknowledged, the labor strife has made him more cynical about the business side of baseball.

"Throwing out who's right and who's wrong," Gwynn said, "when you look at this thing, there aren't many people thinking about the game. To me, that should be an important issue. To me, people [fans] seemed more upset about that than anything, that no one's thinking about the game."

The fans

Lois Butler and Catherine Williams would've been at Camden Yards on Opening Day. Maybe not in their regular seats -- they sit in the terrace section, by third base, with the tickets purchased in their 13-game mini-plan -- but they would've been there.

First lured into baseball through the interest of their father and brother when they were children, they've been going to Orioles games for years. Saw the final game at Memorial Stadium. Saw the first game at Camden Yards.

When they don't attend the games, they like to listen to them on the radio. They've taken a couple of trips to Frederick, to watch the Keys, the Orioles' Single-A affiliate. They've gone on team cruises; Williams got autographs from Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux on her hat.

Butler said she has attempted to follow the plight of baseball through the news. "I've tried to keep up with it," she said. "I got my hopes up a couple of times, and then I sort of get let down. We're disappointed in what's happening.

"We love baseball. We're sorry about the strike. We hope baseball won't die out."

Earlier this winter, Williams called a friend in the Orioles front office, chatted for a few minutes and then closed with, "Don't forget the tickets for Opening Day."

;/ Butler said: "I had to laugh at her nerve."

The manager

The subject of the strike was raised and Phil Regan, 57, recalled his own labor disputes. His first professional baseball contract called for him to be paid $250 a month.

"I won 17 games [in the minors]," Regan said, "and Detroit sent me a contract with a $25-a-month raise. We sent it back and forth seven or eight times, and finally they wound up giving me $300 a month."

Regan went on to pitch in the big leagues, becoming a player representative with the Chicago White Sox. He has worked for management for more than a decade.

But such a prolonged battle over such staggering sums of

money . . . Regan shook his head.

"It's hard for me to imagine," Regan said. "Definitely. Because my thoughts were never in those [ranges of money]."

Regan paused. During the last week, he said, he has begun to feel his inner clock ticking. It's the end of spring training, the season is supposed to begin, it's time to start thinking about Opening Day and getting off to a good start and pushing toward the postseason.

"It hurts a lot, because you see the game as we know it . . . we're really destroying baseball as we know it. People perceive that it's all greed in everything that we do.

"I don't necessarily agree. If it was all greed, then Barry Bonds wouldn't give up $1 million a month [to strike] and Bobby Bonilla wouldn't give up $30,000 per day -- they must believe in what they're doing. Maybe it's their competitiveness, I don't know.

"But somehow, both sides have got to give in a little bit and get this solved."

The reporter

Spring training always has been a special time for Peter Gammons, who covers baseball for ESPN and the Boston Globe. "This is when you see how teams are put together," he said. "How will the players from the off-season trade fit in? Who are some of the young players coming up? Who's in shape? Spring training is like a magnificent overture before a big play."

He loves going from camp to camp, visiting with managers and players and hearing their words of hope; in spring, everyone in baseball is hopeful.

But traveling around Florida this spring, Gammons has found most managers and general managers disheartened about the irrelevance of their daily efforts, because everyone understands that when the major-leaguers return, most or all of the replacement players will be gone.

"Sometimes," Gammons said, "they're too depressed to talk about anything."

Gammons said he has found his own energy and enthusiasm taxed by the strike. He likes the replacement players personally -- "Some really good people," he said -- but says that collectively, they have no place in the game.

"I find that I have a tremendous frustration at the owners' lack of respect for the skills of the [major-league] players," Gammons said. "One thing that's become clear in all of this is just how good the major-leaguers really must be, to play the game so well at such a fast pace. . . . I don't think the owners understand that."

Gammons said he senses that fans are beginning to feel apathy for the sport. Fewer and fewer people ask him whether the Boston Red Sox are going to sign free-agent outfielder Larry Walker or where other impact players will land when the strike is settled.

"That," he said, "is what scares me."

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