2002-08-31 / Sports

New York Fans Caught

In The Strike ZoneBaseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch

In The Strike Zone
Baseball Columnist

New York -- Should the Major League Baseball Players Association carry out their threat to strike on Friday, August 30, it will be the ninth time since 1972 that the troubled sport has experienced a labor stoppage.

It would also be yet another major mistake for the sport of baseball, which has never fully recovered in terms of fan support from their strike eight years ago. When players last cleaned out their lockers on August 12, 1994, it was the beginning of a 232-day disaster that wiped out the World Series and essentially spelled doom for baseball in troubled cities like Montreal.

Great seasons have followed since those days, with the magical efforts of Cal Ripken, Jr., Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds helping to spark and revive interest in a game that sorely needed it. However, with the faces of MLBPA representative Donald Fehr and commissioner Bud Selig again dominating the airwaves, many fans who have returned after the '94 strike are beginning to second-guess their decision.

"They're still fighting over the same thing - money," says C.J. Maloney, a 33-year-old Astoria native who spends his days on Wall Street and nights at Shea Stadium. "The people are just a little bit older and the fans are a little more sickened."

Indeed, money is the driving force behind what could leave ballparks across the country empty for an indefinite period of time. Racing against Friday's deadline, lawyers for MLB players and owners have continued attempts to hammer out agreements regarding the increase of revenue sharing and the implementation of a luxury tax, both of which are intended to handcuff large-market clubs.

The players' proposal regarding the luxury tax would at present affect just two teams, one of them being the Yankees. The owners would like to extend that measure to compass seven clubs, but both sides agree that the Yankees - baseball's equivalent of the salary bogeyman - must be penalized somehow for their free-spending ways.

"I completely understand," says Jim Frasch, 23, a lifelong Yankees fan. "We hear all the rumors, like 'Sammy Sosa's going to be a free agent, so the Yankees will go after him.' I'd rather see the Yankees win on their own merit than go out and get someone."

That includes their antics from this summer, in which the Yankees traded for star Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Raul Mondesi and ace Detroit Tigers pitcher Jeff Weaver even though the club was already stocked with talent. The Tigers and Blue Jays are now 20 hopeless games behind in their respective divisions, with little promise for next season.

"The fans want to see competition, not a multimillion dollar machine steam-roll the league," says Chris Van Buskirk, an 18-year-old Mets fan from Bellerose Village. "How do you expect Tampa Bay ever to draw a single extra fan when they can't compete with the Yankees in any regard?"

A strike could wipe out a season in which the Yankees have taken a firm grip on first place in the AL East and are poised for a possible run at another World Series title. It would also ruin thrilling divisional races in the AL Central and NL Central, and for both league Wild Cards.

"It'll be kind of anticlimactic," said Frasch, a network administrator from North Arlington in New Jersey. "To follow a team through its high and low points, to stick with them and then just see the season kind of crap out."

The 2002 season hasn't been quite as kind to the Mets, who suffered through a 12-game losing streak this month to sink to the bottom of the NL East. Despite the hard luck of their favorite franchise, die-hards aren't ready to give up their lost season to the forces of a labor stoppage.

"If anything, it's a downer that they wouldn't have a chance for redemption," says Bill Bernstein, 62, of Medford. "As things stand now, at least they would have a chance to finish the season on a high note."

Bernstein has watched baseball for over fifty years now, having cut his teeth at long-gone ballparks like Ebbetts Field and the Polo Grounds. In that time, he has endured many bad years of Mets baseball, by far outweighing the good, but the worst times of all are the eight strikes he's had to wait through.

"I go to watch the play on the field," he explains. "I'll miss it. I'm used to watching baseball all summer long. If they're not playing, I guess I'll be watching movies."

Some fans have vowed that a work stoppage this season would be the final straw, telling players that if they leave their respective teams, don't expect the fans to be back when they return. These claims often prove hollow, as seen widely during the strike of '94, and there's no sure way to track whether a significant number of fans are truly staying away.

"I won't lie, I'd be back as soon as they come back," says Van Buskirk. "But I will question the character of all these players. I've heard everyone from [Mike] Sweeney to [Mike] Piazza say that a strike would be a mistake. I'd like to see someone back that up and show up for batting practice on Friday."

But not all fans are as thirsty for Major League Baseball. While another strike would likely drive more casual fans than die-hards into the welcoming arms of the NBA, NFL and NHL, some seamheads have also found refuge in the lower ranks of the sport.

"The last strike, I stayed away for four years," says Maloney. "With the Long Island Ducks (independent) and the Brooklyn Cyclones (Single-A, Mets) in town, now I have even less incentive to go back. For fifty dollars, you can take a family of four, have some munchies and go home happy.

"And both parks blow away Shea Stadium."

Bryan Hoch covers the Mets for FOXSports.com and appears weekly in the Wave. He can be contacted via e-mail at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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