BASEBALL: Empty seats as baseball strikes out

Rupert Cornwell finds the fans of America's sport in rebellious mood
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At last strike-outs have replaced the strike, and the grand old game is back - complete with its paraphernalia of home runs and double plays, batting averages and box scores, hot dogs and the seventh-inning stretch. There is just one problem, however. The fans.

Year in, year out, Opening day is a guaranteed sell-out. But not in 1995. True, in a few of the 13 ballparks where this American rite of spring took place on Wednesday, there was not a seat in the house, but in the case of the California Angels at Anaheim, only because tickets were priced at $1 (60p) apiece.

Similar gimmicks, however, could not prevent the Kansas City Royals from drawing their lowest opening day attendance since 1984. Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium was half empty as the much-fancied Braves trounced the San Francisco Giants. Worse may be in store. And the fans who did turn up showed their bitterness at the 234-day stoppage that began last 11 August, forcing the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, and delaying the start of this season by three weeks.

In Pittsburgh the Pirates- Expos game was held up for 15 minutes after spectators scattered the field with wooden flagsticks. In Kansas City, a fan broke a century's tradition when he caught a foul ball - by throwing it back on to the field.

The owners maintain they expected such gripes. Baseball is a habit, they point out, and broken habits are not easily re-acquired. "After eight and a half months this is going to happen," Bud Selig, Milwaukee Brewers owner and the game's acting commissioner, said. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us, and it'll take some time."

It could also cost an impoverished game dear. Tumbling attendances, plunging TV ratings and unsold souvenirs may slash major league baseball's revenue, from $1.8bn (£1.1bn) in 1993 to $1.3bn (£800m) or less in 1995. And that presupposes that owners and players patch up their disagreements.

Outside Fenway Park in Boston, one jilted devotee of the Red Sox carried a placard reading: "They Will Strike Again, I Know. Hell No, I Won't Go." She could be right. Little noticed, replacement umpires are handling games, after the real ones were locked out by the owners last January, and with the season only 24 hours old there are already mutterings about a boycott of July's All-Star game if the owners withhold their mid-season contribution to the players' pension fund, as they did in 1994. That act of spite hastened the strike. A repeat could hasten another one.