The 152 Addison Street bus was standing room only on the way to the Cubs game a week ago Sunday, even 90 minutes before the first pitch. Upon arriving, fans were in line for tickets with brooms in hand, as the Cubs threatened to sweep the Montreal Expos after winning the first two games of the series. Outside the ballpark it seemed like any other weekend game on an April afternoon, as if the eight-month baseball strike had never taken place.
Surface appearances, however, can be deceiving, and one didn’t have to search very deep to find signs of trouble: just step inside the park, where the crowd was sparse even by April standards, and where there was a noticeable lack of fan intensity throughout the game. Yes, it was a Sunday afternoon in April, there was a chill in the air, and the Bulls were scheduled to play later in the day. Yet none of that explained the minimal turnout of about 14,000 (max) in the stands.
Attendance was announced at 23,854. The attendance for the first Chicago baseball game of the year, the Cubs-White Sox exhibition at Comiskey Park the week before, was 23,470. If those figures seem suspiciously similar for crowds whose thousands were estimated in the mid-teens, there’s a good reason. The National League has followed the American League for the past few seasons in counting all tickets sold rather than tickets taken at the gate as the official attendance. In the case of both the Cubs and the Sox, a large number of unused season tickets were no doubt involved.
No-shows, however, are not the most troubling aspect of fan involvement in the new poststrike era of baseball. While the faithful are back–as shown by that crowded bus and those brooms–the less devoted fans are staying away in droves. In their place is a rabble–there is no better way to describe it–eager to show its displeasure with the sport in general and the players in particular. The players have gone out of their way to mend their relationship with fans–which was deteriorating long before the strike–with tactics such as making themselves more available for autographs. At Wrigley Field that Sunday afternoon there were four–count ’em, four–Cubs standing next to the dugout and signing autographs only minutes before game time. The faithful have been made to feel wanted. But other fans have submitted players to razzing that is excessive by all previous standards. And the mood of the fans in general has been surly and confrontational.
When a 51-minute rain delay struck Comiskey Park the night of the Cubs-Sox exhibition game, dozens of fans jumped onto the field to try to belly slide on the wet infield tarp–including, at one point, about 10 or 15 in a blitz. Another reminder of the uncertain relationship between fans and teams was offered as we left Wrigley Field that Sunday. Ushers were at the gate giving out magnetized schedules, which normally would have been presented to fans on entry. The Cubs shifted that policy after fans by the hundreds (if not thousands) had thrown their schedules onto the field the day before. In a New York incident that received big play in Sports Illustrated, three fans wearing “GREED” T-shirts ran onto the field in the middle of a game, threw fistfuls of dollar bills at the players, and performed a “fan power” salute at second base before they were ushered away.
In spite of these displays of ill feelings, I believe this shakeout will ultimately be good for the sport–and especially for the faithful fan. Tickets to Wrigley Field have been a precious commodity ever since the 1984 divisional championship season, and it was getting to the point where the average fan had to plan months ahead just to procure a few seats for a weekend game. And good seats have been tight on the south side ever since the new Comiskey opened (although there will always be seats available in the upper deck, except for Saturday night fireworks games, when the upper deck suddenly becomes the best seat in the house). Yes, a little shakeout is healthy for the sport in the long run, like a wildfire is for a forest.
The problem is that this little shakeout, which should last for years regardless of how hard baseball tries to lure people back, will only worsen relations between players and owners, who will no doubt blame each other for bringing it upon the sport. Belts are going to have to be tightened on both sides of the player-owner fence before the sport returns to its previous prosperity. And setting the sport’s labor relations completely aside, the threat is that the shortfall will bankrupt small-market franchises and even those otherwise healthy ones that are mortgaged to the hilt. Even theoretically healthy franchises could be hit with a ripple effect they hadn’t banked on. Look at it from this angle. If tickets are no longer in such great demand, season tickets suddenly become less valuable. Many fans on both sides of town kept their season tickets this year because they didn’t want to give up their seats. But they are finding out that, unlike in past years, they can’t just go down to the ballpark before a game they don’t want to see and sell their tickets to scalpers. There is no market for scalpers when tickets are available at the windows (take it from someone who tried to move a couple of season tickets before that Sunday game at Wrigley). Teams like the Cubs, who don’t figure to be competitive for a few years and so don’t add the possibility of playoff seats to their season-ticket plans, might actually find it harder to sell tickets next winter than it was this winter during the strike. Why buy season tickets when you know you can walk up to the window and get tickets whenever?
This all might change if fans return en masse when the weather improves. Yet the weather was pretty splendid for last Saturday’s fireworks game at Comiskey Park. The Sox drew an announced crowd of 24,770, not much of an improvement on the base figure of 23,470 established by the exhibition game with the Cubs.
The end of the strike–especially the artificial, court-imposed end– does not automatically signal baseball’s resurgence. The uncertain condition of the sport is reflected by the two teams in town, and the odd thing is they are on opposite sides of where a fan would expect them to be. The Sox began the season looking like baseball on its way to ruin for a variety of reasons, while the Cubs looked like a team successfully rebuilding.
The Sox demonstrated not only how the quality of play can suffer during an eight-month layoff but how the environment surrounding the game has been poisoned. For instance, the Sox have oftentimes looked distracted in the early going, on the mound and in the field. Ordinarily, the manager would be blamed for such a persistent lack of concentration. But were other things to blame here? The Sox lost Julio Franco to Japan when the free-agent designated hitter became fed up with the strike and went to the nearest place he was guaranteed a paycheck. The best the Sox could replace him with was Chris Sabo. They tried to lowball Mickey Tettleton, a left-handed hitter with 30-homer power, and Tettleton went elsewhere (for no more money than Sabo signed for, as it turned out), even though he would have been a much better fit behind Frank Thomas as the cleanup hitter. Did the Sox lose interest in winning because they perceived that management had? Such questions are the major fallout from the strike and the continued antagonism between players and owners.
Those issues aside, the Sox do not appear to be a bad team, in spite of their woeful start. Rookie second baseman Ray Durham looks like a player. Once he settles in, he should return to the leadoff spot and be a major improvement on the team. And third baseman Robin Ventura, too, should recover from a rough start at the plate and in the field. Scott Ruffcorn will improve the Sox once he adjusts to the majors and takes his proper place in the rotation. But other questions persist, such as can Sabo hit well enough to keep opposing pitchers from walking the Big Hurt once a game (probably not), and can Alex Fernandez replace Jack McDowell as the ace (probably, but remains to be seen)? And let’s not forget, Black Jack departed the Sox in another bit of player-owner pique. The dark clouds over the sport are particularly dark over the White Sox, for various reasons, most of them having to do with Jerry Reinsdorf and his role in the strike.
As for the Cubs, who woulda thunk? Despite a weak lineup and poor fortunes, they are an emblem of the sport’s continuous regeneration. It’s true, they’re not going to win any slugfests when the wind blows out at Wrigley. But new manager Jim Riggleman at least has them playing alert baseball. And there are legitimate signs of optimism in the pitching staff. Working backward, Randy Myers has looked good closing games, Mike Perez has been excellent as the late-inning middle reliever trying to preserve leads for Myers, and the starting rotation is young, talented, and thus far impressive. Opening day starter Jim Bullinger (please, let’s not call him an ace just yet), Steve Trachsel, Kevin Foster, Frank Castillo, and reclamation project Jaime Navarro have all looked good at various times. And in Ferguson Jenkins they have a pitching coach who knows how to work in Wrigley Field, whether the wind is blowing in or out.
The Cubs are rebuilding from the pitching staff up, which is the way it ought to be done (look at the Atlanta Braves). What’s more, they still have one of baseball’s greatest single strengths in Wrigley Field. It’s something of a surprise, in this era, for an otherwise moribund franchise to be resting on what it’s supposed to be resting on–the sport itself and the pleasures of attending an intimate neighborhood ballpark. We didn’t attend the Cubs-Sox game at Wrigley in their home-and-home exhibition series. Only a few thousand people did. But one of our friends who saw the game reported back that for the first time in years the crowd was so small that ushers were obliging people trying to move down into the box seats. It’s a catch-22 that the more people hear news like that, the more people will want to go to the game, which will make it harder to move down to the box seats. But, then again, Joseph Heller’s phrase for the insanity of war is particularly apropos for the state of baseball during this season-long cease-fire in its labor strife.