Scars remain, but so do fans of baseball


"Whew!" said Edna Weibe, who has been operating the Orioles' switchboard for 15 years, "I can't believe how busy we are."

"Why so busy?" she was asked.

"You know those people who said all winter they're not coming back?" Edna said. "Well, they're all coming back."

They're not all coming back, of course, but in Baltimore enough of them are that it won't matter. The defectors are being easily replaced with new customers.

Sellouts will still be customary here, despite the acrimonious, 234-day players strike and the game's unsettled labor problems.

The Orioles still have a waiting list of 13,000 for season tickets and it's a good thing they have.

One of the fans who walked away was John W. Gori, who turned in five 13-game mini-plan tickets and told the Orioles:

"Please see if Bud Selig and Donald Fehr can use these. We've had enough."

The letter he sent the club told of his unhappiness over the way the fans were taken for granted by players and owners alike, and of his displeasure with the club's raising ticket prices during the strike. As he perceives it, the Orioles' motto is "To Hell with the Average Non-Corporate Fan."

That's strong stuff from someone who has been a ticket-plan holder. There no doubt are many John W. Goris. No one can be very happy with baseball as the 1995 major-league season finally gets under way tonight.

The owners aren't very happy. The players sure didn't look happy to me at half-empty Camden Yards Sunday.

The people who are really upset with being put through the wringer -- the people who might have booed -- weren't there.

One of those, a lifelong lover of the game and Orioles supporter, passed up the exhibition game and will skip the home opener May 1.

"I just haven't warmed up to it yet," he said rather sadly yesterday. "They've ruined two seasons -- 1994, by going on strike in August and having no postseason, and they've ruined this season by starting late. One hundred forty-four games is not a true season.

"I wasn't happy, either, that the club charged full price for the exhibition game Sunday. I'm afraid this is going to be a rough year for baseball."

With the season actually getting under way tonight with the Dodgers and Marlins playing in Florida, we can all stop concentrating on the same old negatives and begin thinking about the game.

The big question: Will the Orioles win the American League East?

Answer: Probably not -- but they don't have to.

With the game's new wild-card playoff format, the one that would have been used last year if there had been a postseason, a club can finish second and still go on and win the world championship.

In each major league, the three division winners plus the second-place team with the best record will participate in postseason play.

You probably don't like that and I don't either. What business does a second-place team have going anywhere but home?

I don't like that any more than I like the game's adding two expansion teams at the height of the strike. But this is the way baseball business is done nowadays.

This looks to me like a Yankees year.

The Yanks haven't made a postseason appearance in 13 years. (The Orioles, lest we forget, haven't made one since 1983.)

The Yankees were in first place in the American League East when the strike hit Aug. 12. In second place, 6 1/2 games behind New York, were the Orioles.

The Yankees have strengthened themselves considerably by adding starter Jack McDowell, closer John Wetteland and shortstop Tony Fernandez.

The fight for second should be between the Orioles and the Blue Jays. The return to Toronto of pitcher David Cone gives the Jays an edge as I see it.

Don't forget -- most of the players are still in Toronto from the Blue Jays club that won the last two World Series, there not having been one since '93.

The Orioles may do better than I think if Andy Van Slyke gives them a good year and if Jeffrey Hammonds is healthy enough to contribute.

If pitching truly is the name of the game, the Orioles are in good shape with starters Mike Mussina (who could be a Cy Young winner), Ben McDonald, Sid Fernandez and newcomer Kevin Brown.

The new manager, Phil Regan, seems to be a terrific guy with a great knowledge of the game. But Regan has never managed a professional club in North America. His managing was done in winter ball.

"It's very different down there," a former big-league general manager told me recently.

I'm picking the Indians in the American League Central -- and pulling for them, too. Talk about not having been in postseason play for a while? What about Cleveland, a bystander since 1954?

The AL West is such a disaster that it's not worth picking anybody.

In the World Series, look for the Yanks to meet Atlanta.

It's going to be a strange year, all right.

Spring training lasted three weeks. Can the pitchers possibly be ready? And did the Orioles prepare theirs properly?

"There's no book on it," says Mike Flanagan, the new pitching coach.

When there is one, it might be written by Regan, a former pitcher, and Flanny, a Cy Young winner.

The Orioles kick it off tomorrow in Kansas City, and, probably on Sept. 6, Cal Ripken will break Lou Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable record of 2,130 consecutive games.

Things may not be exactly what we'd like them to be, but at least the start of the season is here and the local nine figures to be one of the better clubs in the majors. That's better than things have been for a good while.

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