Game looks the same, but it isn't


The things that are missing are, somehow, more telling than the things that are present.

Baseball is back, we are told, and sure enough there it is on ESPN -- the Yankees in their classic pin stripes; the big, excited crowd in the Bronx; the Texas Rangers in their Phillies lookalike uniforms.

By golly, look who's throwing out the first ball: 80-year-old Joe D. himself. The Yanks really did call on their ace for the opener.

And out in rainy Kansas City there are the Orioles in their newly designed outfits, including those jackets with the puffed-up, bright orange sleeves.

Hey, O's -- bad sleeves.

You've already deep-sixed the new gray caps. Now junk the sleeves. They'd be more appropriate on workers on a highway waving cars around a construction site.

The leadoff hitter for the Orioles once again is Brady Anderson, not rookie Curtis Goodwin, who dazzled Phil Regan when he hit .400 in Venezuela in winter ball (and is now in Rochester).

When the Orioles opened spring training Regan was ready to hand the job to the kid, even though he had never played above Double-A.

But then manager Regan is a rookie, too. Maybe he and Goodwin are learning together that winter ball ain't the majors.

Even Cal Ripken, the cover boy on this week's Sports Illustrated and baseball's marquee player this year, a man who has played in 2,010 consecutive games, is learning.

In his first 1995 at-bat, Cal was called out on a third strike from Kevin Appier. Then Ripken told the umpire the ball was low, which it really didn't appear to be. Cal is learning about these replacement umpires.

In his next two at-bats, Cal also was struck out by Appier. He walked his last time up. Seldom has the Sports Illustrated jinx struck so quickly.

Yes, the players' strike is over and baseball is back, a little belatedly, to be sure, but once again the game is being played from coast to coast and over the border in Canada.

But is it really back?

That will be debated by the pundits and the answer can't be gleaned from a day and a half of evidence.

We know the game has taken a hit. Even eternal optimist Tommy Lasorda admits that.

"There's been a lot of damage," says the 67-year-old Dodgers manager.

As with so many complicated issues, the answer depends on whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full.

Were those stands in Kansas City one-third empty for Opening Day or two-thirds full?

And what about Yankee Stadium?

Are we to conclude that all is forgiven in New York?

Or is it that the place was bulging with fans because the Yankees, who were in first place when the strike hit last August, are favored this year in the American League East?

Of course it's the latter.

The once-proud Yankees haven't been involved in postseason play in 13 years. The fans there smell blood.

Plus, there are 16 million people in the three-state area from which the Yankees draw. Even in the wake of the longest strike in sports history, there ought to be a big crowd at Yankee Stadium on a sunny Opening Day.

No, all is not forgiven anywhere, not even in New York.

That's why so many clubs are making peace offerings to their fans -- free tickets, half-price tickets, free hot dogs, free peanuts, etc.

In Baltimore, that doesn't have to be done because of the law of supply and demand. The Orioles can sell their tickets, so they're not going to give them away. It's that simple.

One thing we did here was dispatch the players to stations all around Camden Yards before the exhibition game last Sunday so they could sign autographs for the fans.

A noble gesture, but I watched some of the players sign those autographs. They didn't seem very happy about it.

They acted as if they had to go over there and subject themselvesto that. There were few smiles.

The modern-day ballplayer simply does not like signing autographs, even when it's ordered by the only owner in the big leagues who refused to use scab players.

Players tend to think a kid given an autograph will go off and sell it for a profit anyway. Players don't think much of the concept.

No, I didn't see many happy faces among the players, even though so many of them claimed to be overjoyed at being back.

And what about that face on Lasorda in the picture in The Sun yesterday of the Dodgers tipping their caps to the fans in Joe Robbie Stadium Tuesday night?

When you can get a picture like that of Lasorda, looking that glum and disgusted, you've done something.

I've been around Lasorda a lot and I've never seen that sour expression on him. Tommy is baseball's greatest ambassador. He's very comfortable saying:

"When I die, I want 'em to put the Dodgers schedule on my tombstone. Then people can say, 'Let's go out to Tommy's grave to see if the Dodgers are home tonight.' "

But Lasorda didn't appear to have his heart in the cap-waving any more than those Orioles players had theirs in signing autographs.

You can't orchestrate good will that way. It needs to be spontaneous. It needs to come from the heart.

So the Orioles have played one game and lost it, 5-1, and the Yankees have won one, 8-6, and things might appear to be back to normal, but there's a lot of healing still to be done.

Even now, with baseball back, you don't see much joy. What you see is relief. The difference is huge.

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