Baseball's Broken Promises


The only people more gullible than those who will return to see major league baseball games in person are those who believe people won't return to the stands at all.

Those "rebels" who organized protest coalitions, those legions of fans who called up talk shows to vow their revenge on the game, those millions of disenchanted aficionados who muttered how millionaire spoiled-brat players and greedy owners wouldn't get their hard-earned money -- the majority of them will be back.

At Oriole Park at Camden Yards yesterday, where there was supposed to be a sun-drenched Opening Day game, a line of 100 fans snaked toward the ticket windows around the time Mike Mussina's first pitch should have been thrown. The cue had been that long most of the day. You couldn't smell barbecue smoke wafting from Boog Powell's idled stand, but the aroma of fresh-cut Eastern Shore turf in centerfield proved enticing.

Some of us can stay mad at government an entire lifetime (and boo every politician who throws out the ceremonial first ball). But you can't stay mad at the pastime of baseball. It's more insidious than nicotine.

That is not to say the 7 1/2 -month baseball strike didn't cause immense harm. The team owners lost $900 million in revenue. Maryland businesses will end up losing close to $100 million. The so-called "small market" baseball teams remain as structurally feeble as before -- and sapped of precious reserves. Mediocre ball players who last year earned millions suddenly find their post-strike market value has plummeted to the low six-figures. No labor agreement has been signed, casting a cloud over this season and the World Series. All this -- and much more -- has sullied the way we think of professional sports.

Fans returned after baseball strikes in the past with no long-term diminution of the game's drawing clout. They came back from this season's hockey strike with bigger attendance and television ratings numbers than ever. The marketing of sports has been honed to such a bloodless efficacy that baseball's power to recover is probably stronger than after prior work stoppages.

You're never going back? Say it in the heat of June, or in a September pennant race or an October World Series. The broken promises that fans make to themselves are the very reason the owners and players can break their promises to this game that gives us such pleasure.

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