HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Pitcher Dave Stewart had every excuse to make himself scarce yesterday. He had just signed a contract with the Oakland Athletics and was preparing to leave the Major League Baseball Players Association free-agent camp when he noticed 5-year-old Justin Loughrey, watching the workout from a wheelchair.
Stewart stopped for an autograph, then handed the boy his glove. His game glove.
"Try that on," Stewart said.
The child sheepishly tried it on and then tried to hand it back, but Stewart already was moving toward the clubhouse.
"Keep it," he said, "but the next time anybody asks you what your favorite team is, you've got to say the Oakland A's."
In one poignant moment, a lifetime fan was born. If Major League Baseball could replicate that experience for every wide-eyed youngster, there would be no need for salary caps and cost containment, only a new fleet of armored trucks to carry away all the money.
Stewart recognizes that, but there was nothing phony about the effort. He has been spending large amounts of time and money on youth outreach programs since he signed his first big-money contract in 1987, but he knows that baseball players will have to make an extra effort to win back disenchanted fans now that the eight-month baseball strike is over.
"I think there are players out there who need to do more," he said, "and not just because of [the strike]. Based on the blessings that we receive from the game, you can never do enough. My kids can go to college. My mom has a new house. If my family needs something, I can provide it. That's because of this game. How can you repay somebody for setting you up for the rest of your life?"
That feeling may not be universal, but there appears to be a growing awareness among major-league players that they must do something to reconnect with the public. Their image was tarnished by the strike -- even if they were forced by circumstances to walk out on an exciting 1994 season -- to the point that national opinion polls surprisingly showed more fans siding with the owners than the players.
"I think we have to get on a little more personal level with them," free-agent catcher Mickey Tettleton said. "They are awfully bitter, and that's understandable. They are frustrated."
The players tried to address a growing public relations problem even before the strike ended. During a well-orchestrated union news conference three weeks ago in Orlando, Fla., Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens stressed that greater interaction with the public was the chief goal of the union-organized barnstorming tour that would have begun later this month if the ** owners had gone through with replacement baseball.
Clemens clearly was trying to counter the impression among many baseball fans that high-profile players -- himself a good example -- have become reluctant to sign autographs for free and unwilling to interact with the public.
The barnstorming tour won't be necessary, but the temporary labor settlement has created other opportunities to interact with fans. Players and coaches at the union's free-agent training camp held a free baseball clinic for hundreds of Homestead Little Leaguers yesterday afternoon. The kids got instruction in baseball fundamentals and also got the opportunity to engage in a question-and-answer session with the players, which led to a telling exchange between one inquisitive 9-year-old and veteran infielder Tom Foley.
"Why are you guys so greedy and want so much money and stuff? the youngster asked.
"I don't know," Foley said as he laughed and turned toward some of the better-known players in the group. "I don't know why these guys want so much money."
He did his best to explain the reason for the strike in terms that the children might understand, but it wasn't easy, since some of the major-league players in camp say that they still don't understand why they have been out of work since Aug. 12.
The Little League clinic also was intended as a thank you to the city of Homestead, which allowed the players to use the spring training complex at a modest price despite fears that cooperating with the union might cost them a chance to put a major-league team in the empty facility.
But the spontaneous community relations effort has gone well beyond that -- and well beyond the reaches of the Homestead Sports Complex. The only question is whether it will reach beyond the first few days of spring training.
"I think everybody's aware of the fact that the fans are important," said MLBPA director of licensing Judy Heeter, who has found herself acting in the role of community relations director for the free-agent camp. "It would be naive to say we don't understand that the fans expect some outreach. But most of the players already do things in their communities. The difference is, most of them prefer to do it quietly. I think this year they are aware that people need to see them do it."
The players aren't the only ones with some reconnecting to do. The owners tried to portray their quest for cost control as an attempt to keep the game affordable to the average fan, but soon may find out that many fans did not buy that noble motive and are reluctant to buy anything else Major League Baseball has to sell.
"We have hurt our relationship with the fans and we need to fix it," said former major-league player and manager Jackie Moore, who is running the free-agent camp for the union. "That goes for both sides. We're all in this together. We jilted the fans. If you get jilted enough, you're going to think twice before coming back again."
Stewart agrees, but what else would you expect from a guy who showed up unannounced on several occasions to help disaster-stricken Bay Area residents dig out of the San Francisco earthquake in 1989.
"It's a 50-50 thing," Stewart said. "If we both do our part, we'll be all right."
IT'S YOUR CALL
Many fans across the country have said they have lost interest in baseball because of the strike and don't plan to attend as many games this year. We'd like to know if the same is true of fans in Baltimore. Are you less interested in the game now?
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