Baseball fever? Fans in K.C. have some catching up to do


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Sign of the times: Two hours before the Orioles and Kansas City Royals opened the belated 1995 season yesterday, a fan outside Kauffman Stadium sold six reserved seats to a scalper.

He got $15.


That's $2.50 apiece, and it wasn't even Turn Back the Clock Day.

Inside, Cal Ripken was preparing to play in his 2,010th consecutive game. Phil Regan and Bob Boone were getting ready to manage for the first time in a regular-season major-league game. The Royals were suiting up to play for the first time on their new natural-grass field.

It should have been the hottest ticket in town. Opening Day usually is. But these are unusual times. The 7 1/2 -month labor dispute has bruised the baseball public, and that was apparent by the surprisingly sparse crowd of 24,170 that showed up to see the Royals score a 5-1 victory. The club had to give away 5,000 general-admission tickets just to make the stadium look three-quarters full.

In fairness to the no-shows, the game began under threatening skies and ended in a steady drizzle. It looked as if Hurricane Bud or Hurricane Don would strike at any moment, and that was nothing compared with the dark clouds that have hung over the game for much of the past year. So the prospect of witnessing the first tentative steps of a rebuilding Royals team apparently didn't capture the local imagination.

"I don't blame people for not coming out," said first baseman Wally Joyner. "I understand their frustration. I understand the statement they are going to make, but it's our job to play and do what we did today to make the game enjoyable to watch. Hopefully, if we continue to do that, people will want to put what happened in 1994 behind us."

No doubt, it will be different in Baltimore on Monday, when the Orioles come home to play before the usual sellout crowd in their first regular-season game at Camden Yards since their Aug. 11 game was rained out on the eve of the strike. The club probably won't have to contend with the anti-baseball sentiment that has surfaced at other parks, because owner Peter Angelos did a good job of distancing himself from the ownership bargaining strategy that precipitated the 7 1/2 -month players strike.

"I think that has played a role," Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said. "People have been supportive of Peter's stance, and I think that they are also pleased with what we have attempted to do with the ballclub as well -- as far as improving it."

The Royals are not so fortunate. Club owner David Glass was identified as one of the hard-liners during the labor dispute, so fans are more likely to hold the club responsible for the way a promising 1994 season came to an abrupt and unhappy end. The situation was compounded by the club's decision to trade 1994 Cy Young Award winner David Cone during spring training.

"I was surprised that the crowd was only 24 or 25 thousand," said Orioles outfielder Andy Van Slyke, who made his American League debut yesterday. "I think the weather had a lot to do with it, and it's a weekday and it's a day game. And, from what I understand, the fans here aren't too happy about what's going on in Kansas City, so it [Opening Day] had three or four strikes

against it."

It was a particularly unusual situation for the Orioles, who traditionally play at home on Opening Day and draw standing-room crowds no matter what the circumstances. The last time they played an opener on the road was in 1990, when the start of spring training was delayed by baseball's last labor dispute.

That game also took place in Kansas City, but the outcome was dramatically different. Former Orioles designated hitter Sam Horn hit two homers and drove in six runs in an exciting victory that bore no resemblance to the rest of a disappointing 1990 season. The Orioles can only hope that the rest of this year contrasts as clearly with the disappointing performance of the club yesterday.

The Royals have to hope that their solid all-around performance yesterday sends a message to local fans that the loss of Cone does not necessarily mean that the club won't be competitive in the American League Central.

"I'm not concerned," Boone said. "If we put a good product out there. . . . If we put hard-playing players out there like we did today . . . that's going to bring the fans back. All we can do is go about our business the best way we can."

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