On August 12, 1994 Major League Baseball went on strike, and fans everywhere learned a painful lesson: To us, the game was about love, but to the owners and players it was strictly business.
Few fans believed the billionaire owners and millionaire players would really pull the plug; surely, they’d be smart enough to figure out a way to keep the money flowing. So, most fans kept investing their hearts and souls in their teams and the pennant races.
Broke as I was that year, I somehow finagled a trip from Corpus Christi to Fenway and watched as Ken Griffey, Jr. uncorked the most beautiful swing I’ve ever seen and knocked one high over the Green Monster. As the ball disappeared into the darkness, I was overcome by the perfection of it all: the soft summer night, the warm beer in my hand, the flashing Citgo sign, and Junior slowly rounding the bases in the Vatican of ballparks. As I sat there taking it all in, my wife, who’d jumped to her feet cheering, tapped me on the shoulder and asked what was wrong.
“I’m paralyzed with happiness,” I told her and looked away so she couldn’t see my eyes.
But, pull the plug they did with the Rangers leading the AL West and the Astros a half game back in the NL Central.
We fans were furious because we finally realized that our love for the game really was unrequited. All those years of living and dying by the box scores, scrounging to go to games, and praying for a reliable closer had been wasted. We’d mistakenly believed that the players and owners loved their teams as much as we did. But, they didn’t. And if they didn’t, why the heck should we? I swore I’d never go to another game.
For the ’95 season, labor peace had been restored, but attendance was way down. My family made our annual in-law hopping trip to DFW that summer. For several years, all the aunts, uncles, kids and grandparents had gone to a Rangers game together, but that year we’d all sworn off baseball, so no such plans had been made.
But as each day went by, I got antsier and antsier. Finally, about 4 o’clock on our last full day in town, I realized that it’s just not summer without baseball and told the in-laws I was going to the Rangers game. My decision was met by hoots of derision and impassioned arguments: it’s boring, it’s too hot, don’t feed their greed, but nothing could stop me. As I headed out the door, I asked them all one last time if anyone wanted to come. My nine-year old daughter, Erin, knowing that the game wouldn’t be as much fun for me solo, reluctantly agreed to go. Ignoring the Greek chorus imploring us to reconsider, we fled to the car.
When we got to the game, I was determined to show Erin a good time. Every vendor soon learned that if they got her attention, they made a sale. I bought her a big foam #1 finger, a bigger inflatable bat, a Rangers cap and pennant, ice cream, nachos, and a huge ball of blue cotton candy.
The guy in front of me turned around and asked, “Is there really a little girl under all that stuff?” and as everyone around us laughed, Erin looked up at me with a toothy, blue smile and said,” I don’t care what anybody says about baseball, daddy, I’m having fun!”
I looked around the ballpark and realized that you can’t help what you love, and, God help me, I loved baseball. And so do most Americans. And now we need baseball to love us back.
We’re tired of knowing the exact number of toilet paper rolls, chickens, and eggs we have in the house. We’re tired of the cancellation of fun events that highlight our springs and summers. And most of all, we’re tired of the daily avalanche of tragic news.
Baseball has always marked the turning back to normalcy in our country. Who can ever forget George W., in his FDNY jacket, tossing a perfect strike to open the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium to stirring cheers of “USA! USA!”?
And now that many are warily returning to work in worrisome circumstances, it’s time for baseball to comfort us and provide a happy distraction again.
Play in empty ballparks, agree to revenue-sharing or prorated salaries, wear masks, do whatever you have to do, but for the sake of the nation’s sanity, Play Ball!