Publish date:

The week that wasn't

The nation turned its suffering eyes to the labor news as baseball's striking players checked out basketball, paddle ball and even softball

The nation got along quite nicely without the national pastime last week, thank you. Taxes were paid, elections won, gangsters shot. It was business as usual, except of course for major league baseball, an enterprise that seemed to be taxing its own dubious instinct for survival.

Despite the players' strike, which forced postponement of all games, a Florida newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel, printed a box score for what would have been the Opening Day game between Cincinnati and Houston. All players were shown to have no at bats, no runs, no hits and no RBIs. The symbolism was obvious: baseball had shut itself out, pitched itself a big fat goose egg.

What was particularly poignant in all of this was that the issues that separated management and labor—mismanagement and non-labor?—seemed too intramural to arouse much passion among the paying public. Were the owners, by refusing to enrich an already generous pension plan, really pressing a crown of thorns down upon the brow of labor? Were the players, in their inestimable avarice, really setting out to rob the robber barons? Viewed as a matter either way of the rich getting measurably richer, apathy could be the only response.

The players steadfastly insisted that money was not the issue in their grievance with the owners, but the survival of their association as an effective bargaining agent. The owners, they said, were not out to save money so much as they were intent on humiliating the association and weakening the authority of its executive director, the redoubtable Marvin Miller. Miller has said he did not counsel a strike vote but that when it came he was proud of the fledgling unionists who had the courage to stand up to "the 24 multimillionaires who control this game." The owners replied that they would not be investing more than $5 million in benefits for members of a union they were trying to bust. The players, they said, had been led astray by the Svengali, Miller. And lurking in the shadows, rustling its shroud, was the dread specter of the Curt Flood assault on the reserve clause.

So the sports pages read like financial pages, and the public yawned. Actuarial studies...outside arbitration...cost-of-living increases...available funds...federal mediation.... Is this the language of diversion? What has any of this to do with playing ball? Only the very naive would suggest that professional sports be more sporting than professional, but for the impatient fan enough was enough.

The only noneconomic baseball story of the week was a melancholy one: the funeral of Met manager and former Dodger hero Gil Hodges. Afterward, the Mets showed there was some sentiment—and perhaps a little wisdom—left in the business by hiring as Hodges' successor Yogi Berra. The Mets also completed a trade with Montreal that Hodges initiated—the Mets' Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen and Ken Singleton for Rusty Staub.

Staub himself proved to be a sentimentalist. He was sorry, he said, to be leaving his good friends in Montreal. "I've never been accepted so completely so quickly, not as a ballplayer, but as a person. It's been the best three years of my life." The bodies might be gone, but maybe there was still some soul left in the game.

Where, indeed, were the bodies? Most of the players returned to the cities where they lived or where they hoped eventually to play. Things being what they were last week, they all exercised informally.

Lou Brock of the Cardinals and Luis Aparicio of the Red Sox worked out with their sons—Brock and son in St. Louis, Aparicio and son in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Pete Rose of the Reds worked out with the team from his old high school. Chris Cannizzaro of the Dodgers worked out with the Padres in San Diego, where he lives, and Vada Pinson of the Angels worked out with the A's in Oakland, where he lives.

Mickey Lolich of the Tigers worked out on his motorcycle. Riding through gravel pits and gullies, says Lolich, "is great for the legs."

The Braves were working out together until they ran out of bats and balls. "We only had two bats to start with," said Pitcher Cecil Upshaw, "and we broke both of those the second day. On top of that, Henry Aaron hit all our balls into the trees and we lost them. It's hard to practice without any bats and balls."

The Pirates also worked out together. Almost. The exception was Pitcher Dock Ellis, who told Manager Bill Virdon that practicing with the rest of the team was "kowtowing to management." "I do think," said Virdon, "that Dock is working out on his own someplace." That presumably is what Dick Allen of the White Sox is doing. Allen, who missed all of spring training, signed his 1972 contract the day the strike was called and has been missing since.

The Reds were playing basketball, which is hardly kowtowing to management, this being a game much in disfavor with the Cincinnati hierarchy since Centerfielder Bobby Tolan tore an Achilles' tendon on the court and missed all of last season. The Orioles were also playing basketball, as well as paddle ball, a game that has had a bad name in Baltimore since Colt Quarterback Johnny Unitas tore his Achilles' tendon a year ago playing it.

The Dodgers were playing soft ball. Their game against a team of Los Angeles disc jockeys somehow attracted an estimated 8,000 fans into Casey Stengel Field in beautiful downtown Glendale. The Dodgers batted cross-handed, threw wrong-handed and ran to some strange bases. Frank Robinson fell down under an imaginary pop fly. The score was 8-8. The Dodgers are obviously in mid-season form.

Willie Mays of the Giants showed up at Candlestick Park to collect some equipment so he could work out and was summarily rebuffed by a clubhouse attendant who didn't recognize him. Willie Mays.

Gary Nolan of the Reds was recognized, to his embarrassment, in a Cincinnati restaurant at lunch one day. "Get out of here, Nolan!" a diner shouted. "Remember what we did to the Royals." This was a reference to the poor fan support that caused the National Basketball Association team to flee Cincinnati for Kansas City. And Nolan's teammate, Johnny Bench, was recognized on the golf course by an old business friend who wanted to complain to him about the inequities of his own pension plan. Bench did not tip his cap.

In Anaheim one fan was organizing his own union—the United Baseball Fans of America—which will contest such critical issues as rising ticket prices, fan comfort, quality of play and...players' strikes. "The only way the club owners and the ballplayers are going to recognize the view of the fans," a UBFA statement read, "is through united action of the people who are actually paying the bills."

Jackie Jensen, who won the American League's Most Valuable Player award 14 years ago, is not a member of the fans' union, but he was assuredly with it in spirit.

"There are now 26 players getting over $100,000," said Jensen from his Carson City, Nev. home. "I can't believe that all of them are worth it. But I'll tell you one thing: if any fan, including me, goes out to a ball game to see a $100,000 guy play, I expect him to be a super-super player. ... I think playing baseball is a privilege. I enjoyed it, and it was a game to me. It doesn't look like it is anymore. And if it isn't, it isn't going to be much from here on in—either to the fans or the players. And I think that's a tragedy."

A gloomy and melodramatic forecast, perhaps. When the players return, the fans will be there. But Jensen may be right: they may be looking at the game a little differently.

That may not be tragic, but it is a little sad.


CLOSED-DOWN Fenway Park drew a plaintive freehand appeal from one Boston colleen.