Fans' hearts may not survive strike

BASEBALL: The Boys of Summer today begin a season they may already have ruined. Rupert Cornwell reports from Washington
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Sometime shortly after 7.35pm tonight, when a warm darkness has fallen on the Joe Robbie stadium in Miami, the home plate umpire will call "Play ball". A few seconds (which seem a small eternity) later, the Florida Marlins' starting pitcher, John Burkett, will project a white leather ball at over 80mph in the direction of the Los Angeles Dodgers' lead-off hitter, Delino DeShields.

At last, major league baseball is back, and the rhythm of the North American spring is restored. And America, or at least that steadily diminishing part of it still addicted to what was once known as the national pastime, will heave with resentful relief. Four words might sum it up: welcome back - damn you.

This is the season where success will be measured not by feats on the field, but by those who bother to watch them. Preliminary season-ticket sales are down at most clubs - in some cases by a third. To drum up interest, the New York Mets are offering seats for some early season games at $1 (62p) each, and running full-page advertisements of a contrite team telling fans: "We missed you".

Only about 24,000 tickets have been sold for the 50,000- capacity Houston Astrodome, while the Los Angeles Dodgers have rolled prices back to 1958 levels. The Kansas City Royals are giving away 5,000 tickets to their first four home games, and as many as 35,000 meal coupons. "We understand the fans have gone through a lot of pain over the past eight months," a spokesman for the Royals, Steven Fink, said.

But the lasting effects of the 234-day strike which ruined the 1994 season will only become apparent as the summer wears on. Will the fans still flock to pay $8, $12 or more a ticket? Will the television ratings hold up, or has that bond of trust between a sport and its devotees been broken for good?

Whether or not the tarnished Boys of Summer redeem themselves, and whatever heroics they deliver on the field, 1995 will be a flawed season. Baseball, more than any sport, lives for its statistics; the supreme yardstick of merit and means of comparison of great players through the ages. Because of the late start, the regular season has been shortened.

Every average will enter history with an asterisk against it. Maybe Tony Gwynn, of San Diego, will become the first man to hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941, as he threatened to do in 1994. But in a season cut from 162 to 144 games, it somehow will not quite count.

But far more importantly, catastrophe could strike again, because nothing has been settled. Owners and players have not agreed a new labour contract. The longest, costliest, work stoppage in sporting history was ended in classic American fashion: not by reason, not by compromise, least of all by remorse, but in the courtroom.

On 3 April, a New York judge upheld a ruling of the National Labor Relations Board that the owners had bargained in bad faith. The ludicrous prospect of replacement baseball - "scab-ball" - was averted, but not the threat of more turmoil in a few months' time.

The drip of crocodile tears cannot drown out the gnashing of crocodile teeth. The dramatis personae are the same. The inept Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, is still the game's acting commissioner. Don Fehr, his lip curled in a permanent sneer, remains at the helm of the players' union, while a nucleus of hard-line owners led by Jerry Reinsdorf, of the Chicago White Sox, still plots to break the union for ever.

Only the knowledge they were on the brink of killing off baseball as a major spectator sport has brought about the current truce. The owners' fury is now directed at the major league umpires, locked out since January after they had the temerity to seek their first pay rise in five years.

There is an element of grim satisfaction for Selig as he surveys the wreckage of a dispute which cost the clubs $700m (£435m) and which is expected to reduce major league baseball's revenues to $1.4bn from the $1.8bn of 1993: everything the owners warned would happen without an agreement is happening.

The players, who lost $230m in wages during the strike, are being paid less - salary cap or no salary cap. Illustrious free-agents accustomed to $3m have had to accept contracts worth a tenth of that. And without the revenue-sharing agreement sought by the owners, financial losses have only hastened the division of clubs into two tiers: those forced to sell their best players to remain solvent, and the rich franchises who snap these players up, concentrating talent to the point where, sooner or later, competition will shrivel.

For example, the Montreal Expos, owners of the best record in baseball in 1994, have parted with three of their finest; the lead-off hitter, Marquis Grissom, slugger Larry Walker and the ace reliever, John Wetteland. The Expos' wages bill this year could drop to below $10m, compared to $50m spent by the the big boys. Kansas City have traded David Cone back to the Toronto Blue Jays, just to trim $5m from the payroll.

And so to predictions for 1995. The AL East remains by far the strongest division. Three of the richest franchises, the new York Yankees, the Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles have snapped up talent at an incredible rate, and whichever prevails is a fair bet for the World Series.

In the National League, Atlanta look better than ever, adding the lead- off brilliance of Grissom to a roster that already offered the the best starting pitching in the majors. Their toughest opposition could well prove to be the Colorado Rockies, boasting a brand new stadium, the biggest fan base in baseball, and an offensive line-up that could take the franchise to the play-offs in only its third year of existence.

Baseball desperately needs a Boy's Own story - and mercifully a couple are at hand. This year could see the Cleveland Indians, baseball's equivalent of the beloved and hopeless Fulham football club of yore, actually win something, if only the AL Central Division title. And then there is Cal Ripken.

Health and weather permitting, the Orioles shortstop will on 6 September topple arguably the most formidable record in sports - the 2,130 consecutive games played by the Yankees' original "Iron Man", Lou Gehrig. When matters came to a premature end on 11 August, Ripken had extended his run to 2,009 games, which began on 30 May 1982.

Since that day, Ripken has not missed a single game at the most difficult and demanding position on the field. Off it, he is the perfect ambassador for his troubled sport: approachable, modest and a professional who signs autographs for free. Come early autumn, he should be America's next hero. Unless there is another strike.