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Anybody Home?
Tom Verducci
May 08, 1995
There were lots of empty seats and angry fans as the baseball season began
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May 08, 1995

Anybody Home?

There were lots of empty seats and angry fans as the baseball season began

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His Brewers, as if proving the fallacy of Selig's competitive-imbalance postulate, won their first three games, including both ends of the inaugural home-and-home Bud Bowl—a matchup of the clubs whose owners carry the most juice in baseball. Selig's Brewers bested Jerry Reinsdorf's Chicago White Sox. Reinsdorf, having chased off high-priced talent in DH Julio Franco, outfielder Darrin Jackson and pitcher Jack McDowell during the labor "war" that he had predicted almost gleefully, was rewarded with an 0-4 start in which his Sox were outscored 39-11.

Reinsdorf drew fewer fans than even Selig for his home opener. The Sox opened to their smallest crowd (31,073) since 1982. It was typical of how some of the most hard-line owners suffered for the poison they had spread. Tough guy Wayne Huizenga's Marlins drew their smallest crowd ever (18,587), on the second day of-the season. David Glass's Kansas City Royals attracted their smallest Opening Day crowd (24,170) since '84. Carl Pohlad's Minnesota Twins had their worst-attended opener (26,425) since '78. The Seattle Mariners, run by local businesses and chaired by John Ellis, pulled in their smallest opening crowd (34,656) in 14 years, even though the game was the first in Seattle since ceiling tiles began falling from the Kingdome on July 19.

The rich boys took a hit too. The Toronto Blue Jays drew their smallest crowd ever at SkyDome (31,070), in their second game. The Rockies attracted a total of 9,063 fewer people to their first two games than they did for two exhibition games with replacement players. Because all teams announce tickets sold rather than a turnstile count, the actual turnouts were even worse. Atlanta, for instance, which sold an average of 47,023 tickets a game last year, sold only 32,045 tickets for its home opener. The Braves also announced that only 24,091 people actually showed up, but the club didn't make that mistake again.

The product offered to these flagging numbers of loyalists hardly inspired future visits. Given the fast-forward three-week spring training, these were glorified exhibition games—only more tedious and more poorly umpired, because it was not until Monday that owners ended their lockout of major league umps after reaching agreement on a five-year contract.

Pitchers clearly weren't ready to begin the season. Only two of the Opening Day starters—David Cone of Toronto and Ramon Martinez of Los Angeles—cracked the 100-pitch barrier. Anyone who paid to watch master pitchers Greg Maddux of Atlanta or Mike Mussina of the Baltimore Orioles saw them check out after five innings and 61 and 49 pitches, respectively. Worst of all, Kevin Appier of Kansas City was yanked only seven outs away from a no-hitter. "It's one of the tragedies of the strike," Oriole pitching coach Mike Flanagan said of Appier's departure. "You don't know how many times you're going to be in that position in your career." Or to be in a position to see a no-hitter.

Through the first six days of the season, 585 pitchers appeared in 66 games, or the ridiculous average of about nine pitchers per game. All those pitching changes (there's an exciting part of the game, huh, kids?), not to mention the shallow talent of this pitching pool, contributed to those games' dragging on for an average of three hours, four minutes. Now, that will cement baseball's 33⅓-rpm reputation in a quadruple-speed CD-ROM world.

Hitters pounded the pitiful pitching for 10.7 runs per game, or an 8% increase over what was already such a staggering rate last year that it produced Oliver Stone-like juiced-ball conspiracy theories. "If the hitters are sharp and the umps aren't calling strikes," said Twin manager Tom Kelly, "you'll probably see a .400 hitter."

No one seemed to know for sure just what a strike was any more. The owners were so happy to have baseball back that they locked out the 64 umpires, further diluting the quality of the games. The owners turned to replacement umps like Bill Deegan, 60, who worked in the American League so long ago, he called balls and strikes on Al Kaline. When he judged a wayward eighth-inning pitch to Yankee first baseman Don Mat-tingly to be a strike, the Opening Day fans in New York began chanting, "Scab! Scab! Scab!"

Managers and players expressed daily frustration with the replacement umpires. New York Met second baseman Jeff Kent said they turned the strike zone into a moving "blob." The Philadelphia Phillies lost a game last Saturday, 3-2 to Pittsburgh, on a blown call on the bases that cost them a run in the eighth inning. "These guys are so——bad," Phillie centerfielder Lenny Dykstra said, "it's scary."

The owners began to come around last Friday after losing a decision in front of the Ontario Labor Relations Board—yes, it wouldn't be baseball without management lawyers getting their briefs scorched—which ruled that the American League cannot use replacement umpires in Toronto because of a provincial law that bars replacement workers. On Monday the owners agreed to give the umpires pay raises ranging from 25% to 37.5%, based on seniority. Rookie umpires will be guaranteed $100,000, while 30-year veterans can earn up to $282,500.

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