About 20 minutes before the first pitch of the 1995 season had been scheduled to be thrown on Sunday night, acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig stood at a podium in a Chicago hotel and instead tossed out this: The owners were "delighted" to welcome back their prodigal players after a 232-day strike. Does that qualify as the ceremonial first bull? After all, the owners attained this state of euphoria only after being dealt an embarrassing defeat by U.S. district court judge Sonia Sotomayor two days earlier and only after predicting, in an appeal of Sotomayor's ruling, that taking the players back under such circumstances would likely wipe out another World Series and drive some clubs into bankruptcy. How delightful.
Yes, major league baseball is back, in the manner of oppressive humidity, a persistent skin rash or that pinging noise underneath your car's hood. Such is the game's state of affairs that Selig's "play ball" announcement caused more anxiety than celebration.
That's because baseball is hardly better off than the last time it was around, almost eight months ago. The owners and players still have no collective bargaining agreement, no mutual trust and no chance at preserving the integrity of a 162-game season. Not since Julia and Lyle has a marriage been greeted by so many gloomy predictions that it will never last.
"No one rests easy until there is a settlement, and that includes the players as well as the fans and owners," says Los Angeles Dodger catcher Mike Piazza. "We're not popping any champagne corks or sending any flowers, believe me. Even though we're happy to be back playing baseball, there are a lot of quiet, reserved feelings about what might happen. I mean, the owners could give us spring training money and lock us out later."
Likewise, many owners fear that allowing the players to return without an agreement opens the door for them to strike again at their convenience. Moreover, the owners must continue to pay players under the old economic system (with revenue sharing among the owners still not in sight), even though the strike has siphoned out of the game hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
"I don't think the game's any better off," Montreal Expo general manager Kevin Malone says of the rancorous work stoppage. "What good has come out of it? For either side? Nothing. I felt like our team was hurt the worst last year by the strike. [The Expos had the best record in baseball when the players walked out on Aug. 12.] This just adds insult to injury. I didn't think it could get much worse. Now I think I might be wrong."
"All of a sudden in July or August we could be in the same situation with a strike," says Florida Marlin president Don Smiley. "To be honest, I don't think our fans would come back in that situation. I think that's too much for them."
The players' mandatory reporting date is this Friday, at which time 29 camps (one for each of the 28 clubs and another, in Homestead, Fla., available to about 100 free agents awaiting offers) are expected to be geared up for three weeks of spring training.
Even though formal workouts weren't allowed until Wednesday, a few players trickled into empty spring training complexes on Sunday and Monday, including American League batting champion Paul O'Neill of the New York Yankees. When a fan asked O'Neill to sign an autograph, he replied, "It's been so long, I'd love to." Five members of the Philadelphia Phillies were in camp on Monday morning, including centerfielder Lenny Dykstra, who rolled into the clubhouse and asked, "Where's the rest of the troops, dude? It's not like they didn't have enough time to get here. Eight months." Soon he was asking the clubhouse boy to get him a cup of coffee and two packs of cigarettes.
"The fans paid the biggest price during this whole thing," Dykstra said. "For the first time in my career I really felt like we were——the fans. Without them there's no big salaries, no Porsches."