By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
For a while, Texas Rangers president Tom Schieffer remained adamant that it was not necessary to give away 40,000 tickets and as many hot dogs to get the fans back--that baseball could thrive on its own merits.
As if this were as simple as a slice of good apple pie which does not need a scoop of vanilla.
Recall earlier in the season, when Schieffer expounded on this reasoning, with the observation that more people go to baseball than lacrosse games because they just like baseball better.
But as baseball's belated regular season begins its second month, fans continue to stay away like they really mean it--despite the draw of new ballparks and old habits. Attendance is down, in fact, at every major-league park but four; where it is up, it is by small margins, on average, between a few hundred and just more than a thousand tickets.
Attendance for the Texas Rangers, by contrast, is down an average of 14,547. Often the upper deck of the outfield remains almost totally empty and green. Fans arrive so late and so casually here--there is so little sense of urgency--that the early-inning crowd could practically fit in a 7-Eleven. The picture is similar elsewhere. Detroit is down more than 13,000, Atlanta more than 19,000. In Baltimore, home of the acclaimed Camden Yards, attendance is off an average of 7,602 a game.
No wonder, then, that Schieffer, the other Rangers executives, and all the faces of baseball are rethinking their entire way of doing things--from the way they market the game (there is a call for more flash and less reliance on nostalgia), to the type of people they will have on this team.
The Rangers' bosses say they are instituting an informal no-buttheads rule.
In his revisionist thinking, Schieffer says he isn't surprised at the fans' animosity. He has taken it to heart because it has hit the team in the wallet.
Last Wednesday, Schieffer sat in the owners' luxury suite with a dozen or so fans who had been snagged out of the stands to be "owner for a night." The owner for the season, Schieffer, was in the middle of helping a kid find ice for his free Coke. He said he was in the second of two days of one-on-one chats with players.
It was all to clear the air, to mend the fences both sides had trampled during the strike. And players were actually--and sincerely--suggesting promotions they might do to soothe the fans' anger.
It was Jeff Russell who came up with the idea of having kids take the field during the home opener. Juan Gonzalez spent almost three hours at a children's hospital last week; no one told the media--at least for a few days--lest the gesture appear too calculated. Will Clark suggested the entire team sign autographs on the concourse. Kenny Rogers has proposed more community baseball clinics. Mickey Tettleton and Gonzalez came up with the idea of making a joint player-management cash donation to the families of Oklahoma City bombing victims.
I just about fell into the owner-for-a-night bratwurst warmer when I heard a few of those. If you think this is not a switch, you haven't been following the Rangers for the last few years--and the arrogant manner in which baseball has conducted its business for the past decade.
There are reasons fans are spitting on their Topps cards. The strike is just the biggest.
Baseball's "snootiness" I call it, and Rangers' vice president for community relations, Norm Lyons, shakes his head. "Baseball has been arrogant," he says. "It's embarrassing."
Schieffer and company now know they will even have to stoop to the symbolic. This beautiful green cathedral, this enduring game, simply cannot stand on their own. "I realize this is largely symbolic," said Schieffer, offering a hot dog to an owner-for-a-night. "We're just hoping to indicate we are trying, and we regret what happened.
"It's not a situation where you can sign a few autographs, bring a few fans into the owners' box, and everything will be OK. I really think we are going to have to win the fans back one at a time."
In addition to simply winning--the most important draw of all--that will mean changing how this organization does business.
During the strike, Schieffer had plenty of time to muse about such matters. He says he would walk into his big glass office overlooking right field and come away with the feeling that the empty stadium was "sad." During those days, Schieffer and general partner Rusty Rose would talk about how the players and team management got along--or didn't, and how the new ownership team had gone about this wrong from the start of its tenure.
"We realized we made a mistake in the past," says Schieffer, "in that Rusty Rose and I, our concern as owners, has always been that we did not want to appear like, well, jock chasers.
"We didn't want to be the owners down there, having them [the players] shake hands with our buddies. We created that distance because it seemed like the right thing to do. I think that distance has ended up hurting us.