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Baseball strike leaves fans little to shout about


As a person who has followed the Baltimore Orioles since he was old enough to pronounce Kryhoski (1954, first base, hit left-handed and rarely), it feels uncomfortable but necessary to perform the following ritual in a public place: I speak for the empty seats.

They were out there by the thousands the other night when we went to Camden Yards for a ballgame and realized you can hear more noise at a City Council meeting when they know the TV cameras are rolling.

Can we talk? Yes, but apparently not very loudly at the ballpark, since the old Memorial Stadium loonies, the Wild Bill emotional brethren, the ones who used to howl to the moon at the dawning of each new rally, who hollered "Come on Ken, put it in the bullpen," and "Eddie-Eddie" and "Come on, Lowenstein, put it over the National Beer sign," and went home with their throats raw but their spirits soaring and came back the next night to do it all over again, apparently all lost their way between 33rd Street and South Baltimore somewhere outside of shouting distance.

It's so quiet at the new place. You want to shake people and remind them they're at a ballgame and not a fondue tasting. Yes, we were there on the glum night Seattle's Randy Johnson three-hit the O's and, yes, we were intimidated when they passed out the All Star Game ballots. (We didn't participate; we were afraid Ellen Sauerbrey would challenge our votes.)

But it's a different crowd now, partly put off by the Orioles' unpredictable and sometimes incompetent play, and partly still acting like company in some rich uncle's new mansion, all mannered and polite and hoping not to talk out of turn, and partly still withholding their emotions after baseball's self-induced heart attack of a walkout.

Peter Angelos knows this. The one owner in baseball who stood for management-labor sanity, he recognizes that, even in the pre-strike days, even when his ballpark was filled, it was also pretty listless. He was thrilled one night last year, as he sat in his luxury box, to see Wild Bill Hagy in the stands and leading cheers, and talked of bringing him out to the park regularly. But the notion seems to have slipped away.

Of course, this goes deeper than an absence of one fan, who merely symbolizes a more boisterous, vanished time.

Around both leagues, post-strike attendance has deflated faster than Sid Fernandez' waist line (and, not to mention, his pride.) zTC San Francisco's down 46 percent, and Minnesota, Texas, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Florida are all down about a third. In both major leagues, there's about a 20 percent drop. In other words, one in every five ballpark fans from last year is now staying away from the ballpark.

And, as the Orioles stagger through another clumsy week, what does the casual fan learn about the brand new, post-strike game?

a) Ben McDonald, winner of two games this year, winner of 57 games (and loser of 50) in his career and never the winner of more than 14 games in a single season, negotiated a new contract worth $4.5 million; and,

b) Mike Mussina, yielder of 14 home runs in 10 starts this year, possessor of a 5-4 record, lately bonked 11-0 by Cleveland, now seeks roughly a $3.5 million-a-year contract.

Those expected to pay for such contracts are the very people currently leaving empty seats everywhere. Somehow, the price of everything baseball-related will have to rise, thereby limiting the pool of those who can still afford a night at the ballpark, thereby limiting the very nature of those fans, who once arrived from the great, uninhibited working classes and now drop in from their law offices and their accounting practices and sit through ballgames as though quietly shmoozing clients.

Baseball learned nothing from its strike. Its fans are still fuming, but no one inside the game gives an inch. Its prices keep climbing, and no one knows how to stop it. Its fans turn away -- or show up but keep their emotions in check.

There was a time when Orioles fans were a kind of 10th man on the field. Elrod Hendricks still talks of the days when Rick Dempsey or Al Bumbry would wave from the dugout toward the gang in Section 34, and the adrenalin would start pumping through the whole ballpark.

Today? The players could wave all they want, but they'd be looking at a lot of empty seats staring back at them.

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