For the fans, empty seats speak louder than any words of disgust


They came back in 1972. They came back in 1981, in 1985, in 1990.

But so far in 1995, unlike in those other seasons of labor strife, baseball fans are staying away, in such numbers that you'd have to wonder if they're major-league fans anymore.

The Toronto Blue Jays drew 31,070 on Thursday, the smallest SkyDome crowd since that facility opened in 1989. Playing host to the Orioles Thursday, the Minnesota Twins drew their smallest Opening Day crowd in the history of the Metrodome. Everywhere, including traditional baseball towns such as St. Louis and Chicago, they have been staying away.

The second-day attendance figures, which may provide a better read of public sentiment because Opening Day is usually such an event, were much worse. The San Diego Padres, who have new ownership and an improved team after making a 12-player deal with the Houston Astros, had a gathering of 7,468 Thursday. The Pittsburgh Pirates announced a paid attendance of 7,047, but those at the game said the actual number was probably about half that.

And the mood of those who have attended has been ugly at times. Texas first baseman Will Clark, an ardent critic of replacement players, was booed by Rangers fans Thursday, even after he homered. Fans booed in San Diego and in Florida. Somebody flew a banner over Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium that read: "Owners & Players -- To Hell With All Of You."

The trend could be temporary. The numbers are certainly diminished, in part, because potential patrons haven't had as much time to plan trips to the ballpark. Normally, they have three or four months for that. This year, they had just three or four weeks.

The fans may return, en masse, once the season starts rolling.

Or maybe they won't. Maybe this is serious.

It's hard to say yet whether the owners and players are getting the message. On the one hand, the players have gone out of their way to accommodate fans this spring. You see Boston Red Sox slugger Jose Canseco standing and signing autographs for hours and the Padres players handing out complimentary caps on Opening Day in San Diego.

On the other hand, you see quotes from Donald Fehr's right-hand man, Gene Orza, who seems to have a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. On consecutive days last week, Orza reportedly complained about possible collusion by the owners and then suggested that the players may not participate in the All-Star Game unless a pension-plan payment is guaranteed by the owners.

These are legitimate issues and Orza may be right on both counts, but in the first week of baseball after the long strike, wouldn't it have been better if he simply had shut up?

And after San Diego fans booed the Padres for their miserable play in the opener, second baseman Bip Roberts said: "You go out and show something nice to appreciate them, people quickly shove that back in your face. We don't need those sour apples out there."

In fact, Mr. Roberts, you do need those sour apples. At the present time, those are all the apples you have.

There is still no labor agreement, and the owners have shown little willingness to return to the bargaining table and actually complete the deal that seemed to be within their grasp the first weekend in April. They seem prepared to go through this ugliness again.

The players association, on the other hand, appears much less willing to have another battle. Many players have said they would be reluctant to strike this summer. They appear to have a better understanding of just how angry the fans are, probably because they deal with them face-to-face on a daily basis.

It could be a perfect time for the union to take the high road and sign a more modest collective bargaining agreement just to ensure that the games go on this summer. Fehr could negotiate a settlement and rightly say that he didn't get what he wanted, but that the players realize the game is in real danger.

L And it is in jeopardy. The attendance figures bear that out.

"It's up to them whether they want to come out," said Marlins center fielder Chuck Carr. "We're still going to play hard. It's our job whether they are out there or not. If they're going to hold a grudge. . . ."

He paused.

"They're not going to hold a grudge for 10 years."

Give them much more reason to and they will.

Lasorda can be nimble

The Los Angeles Dodgers are extremely concerned about catcher Mike Piazza, who may have pulled a hamstring Wednesday. As soon as manager Tom Lasorda saw Piazza begin to limp, he jumped off the bench to attend to his star. "If somebody was robbing your Rolls-Royce," Lasorda said, "wouldn't you come out of your house fast?"

The Dodgers are trying to sign free-agent pitcher Tim Belcher. . . . Last week, the Rangers released former No. 1 pick Donald Harris, who was taken ahead of Frank Thomas in the 1988 draft. . . . The Atlanta Braves are starting the year with a left-field platoon of Ryan Klesko and Mike Kelly, which will be obsolete by, say, mid-May. Klesko, the left-handed hitter, went 4-for-5 against left-handers this spring, and Kelly continues to struggle at the plate, hitting .120. Klesko met with manager Bobby Cox and told him he was wrong for starting the season this way. . . .

Cleveland Indians catcher Sandy Alomar, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, is on the disabled list for the fifth straight season. . . . The Milwaukee Brewers' quick start has been aided by the return of Pat Listach, the 1992 AL Rookie of the Year who has spent most of the past two years on the disabled list. Listach has been moved from shortstop to second. . .

The biggest Opening Day cheers at Fenway Park were for hitting instructor Jim Rice, who was making his first appearance there in six years. . . . Oakland Athletics left fielder Rickey Henderson, who didn't steal a base during spring training, swiped two on Opening Day.

Opening week observations

Knee-jerk reactions from the first days of the season:

* The Detroit Tigers may have been better off going with their replacement team.

* Kansas City Royals pitcher Kevin Appier, who threw 98 pitches in his first start and then is being asked to come back and pitch on three days' rest, will find his name on the disabled list at some point this season.

* There are a handful of very good teams and an unusual number of mediocre and bad teams.

* Brett Butler is going to help the New York Mets immensely this year.

* Colorado Rockies left fielder Dante Bichette, who began celebrating within milliseconds of hitting a game-winning homer

against the Mets' Mike Remlinger Wednesday, had better be ready for a knockdown pitch the next time he faces Remlinger.

* Then again, Remlinger, who blew two leads in that wild game, probably won't be in the big leagues much longer.

* The hope here is that the small-market Montreal Expos beat up on big-market Atlanta in 1995.

Portugal's bad luck

It's going to be this kind of year for the San Francisco Giants' pitching staff: Last week, starter Mark Portugal was pumping away on an exercise cycle when a stabilizing pin fell out and the seat fell seven notches. Portugal suffered a back spasm. . . . Oakland first baseman Mark McGwire appears to be healthy again, hitting five homers in spring training. . . .

Former Orioles president and current Padres chief executive officer Larry Lucchino is butting heads with Padres general manager Randy Smith. They disagreed about the possible addition of Frank Robinson (Lucchino asked the Orioles for permission to talk with Robinson before discussing the issue with Smith) and over the signing of left-hander Fernando Valenzuela (Lucchino wanted the Mexican native, who could help draw fans from nearby Tijuana, but Smith wanted a pitcher who he thought would help the team win).

It's hard to see these two co-existing beyond 1995, although it's not clear who will be the first to go. Smith's contract expires after this season, and Lucchino has a one-year out clause in his deal with new Padres owner John Moores. . . . At Camden Yards last week, Philadelphia Phillies manager Jim Fregosi was in an autographing frenzy, picking up balls and pieces of paper that had been thrown to him off the ground, signing them and then throwing them back. Unfortunately, one of the items he threw into the crowd was a glove that belonged to outfielder Dave Gallagher. "It was pretty raggedy," Gallagher said. "I can see how he made the mistake."

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