The death of sports?

Baseball's annual Hall of Fame game was hours over. All the other reporters had left the little press room in the back of the Hall.

But this one, after computer problems, was trudging through to the exit in partial darkness, with only a bunch of guys like Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig for company.

My god, everyone is gone.
Security guards were not visible. It was after 10 p.m., and even the escalator was asleep.

For an hour, I had baseball's Hall of Fame--alone. It didn't seem right to stay longer and abuse the privilege.

Even then, walking through the shadows on Babe's locker at the outset of the ill-fated 1994 season, there was little doubt a World Series would be canceled, in a long and ugly strike.

And there was little doubt that, when it was all over, after bitching a lot, we'd all be back.

Americans are sick. We will never, ever turn on sports. So stop your yapping about never going to another baseball--or hockey or basketball or football--game again. That old routine doesn't fool anyone anymore.

In Dallas, the Stars' average attendance is actually up over last season. Does anyone really remember that there was a work stoppage in the NHL?

Of course, in Canada, they have remembered a little longer. There, hockey is revered the way we revere baseball. In Vancouver, for example, attendance is sharply down.

Though baseball, with its deep roots in organized labor, has more than a hundred years' experience screwing us over, another sport will probably pull a similar stunt soon to take the heat off hardball. It's a simple fact: we will never end our severely co-dependent relationship with the boys of summer--and those of winter, spring, and fall as well.

After the 1981 baseball work stoppage, attendance went down 11 percent. Then the game enjoyed a great resurgence--and attendance soared.

Does anyone remember scab football and that travesty of an NFL season? They helped us forget the baseball strike. And the baseball strike helped us forget the hockey lockout.

"It seems as if they are already forgetting in hockey," says professor Jack Nachbar. "And unless baseball does something so preposterously stupid--well, we know they are capable--but unless they do something very stupid, this will go away."

Nachbar is Offsides' very own expert: director of the (no kidding) pop-culture department at Bowling Green University. (Yes, a university has a whole department where professors track everything from "I Love Lucy" fetishes to work stoppages in sports.) He says there probably isn't any limit to how far professional sports can push us and still regain our affections--without even caring or trying. "For a lot of people, especially people who feel they have mediocre lives," explains Nachbar, "sports and affiliating themselves with a certain team or player helps them have an identity.

"We have all become fame junkies. We have a need to go back." Also, says Nachbar, "sports is a ritual, and symbolic of a lot of needs. Not just in this country but all over the world. Why do you hear about people killing themselves after soccer losses?" And why do you hear about spousal abuse going up after home-team football losses? "This part applies to men, of course," says Nachbar, "but testosterone will bring them back."

And estrogen will keep women buying those shirtless Ken Griffey Jr. posters.
This spouse can abuse us until the neighbors call the cops every night. Press charges? File for divorce? Hell no, we'll go back to him.

It is what we do. And we'll keep doing.
The Rangers had 3,500 in walk-up sales for the replacement exhibition game. Regular-seat sales aren't picking up. But there is no set schedule yet. And the Rangers sold 130 season tickets this week, says sales director John Shriever. In normal spring weeks, the team sells about 40 or 50 season seats. "To be honest," says Shriever, "I was pretty surprised with the walk-up we had for the exhibition. We have some things going for us here that other places won't. We have this stadium people just want to come back to. Other places don't."

As sports has become big business, it naturally has embraced the corporate approach, rather than improved displays of humanity, to mending fences: the ad campaign. Hockey did it. Major-league baseball will too--just watch.

Phillies' infielder Dave Hollins said last week that some players who aren't too nice to the fans might want to start reconsidering their behavior--for the sake of the game. "Guys can't be blowing them off like they do a lot," says Hollins. He's right; there's plenty of room for plenty of butthead ballplayers to start acting more like decent human beings.

But hell--why not just have an ad campaign? The Stars did it--apologizing for what happened but welcoming fans back.

Baseball began its makeover even before the strike was over, with cheesy full-page ads in USA Today, in the format of "open letters" to individual families of fans in obscure little towns. League officials won't say what they have planned now that the walkout has ended.

The teams are going to have to kiss up to us a little bit, even if their individual players won't. "It may have helped us out," says a Stars' spokesperson, "that hockey players don't have the reputation of whiny baseball players."

Baseball's wounds will heal in time. Hockey already appears just peachy.
Of course, there will come another time of crisis in the NBA or NFL. "I'm never going back to a football game," you'll swear, bent over a frosty fish bowl of beer while watching some soccer refugee scab named Yago Sangria go 0-for-3 in field-goal attempts.

But now, with the strike-shortened hockey season not yet over, all anyone cares about is Mike Modano being out for the season. Or how 'bout the Stars' having to use those two rookie goalies back-to-back? And has there ever been another goalie named Hernandez?

A hundred years from now, some reporter will realize she has the run of the Hall after dark. That Griffey Jr. plaque will give her chills as she wonders what it might have been like to actually see him bat. His union card will be of little consequence. And down there at the Pete Rose plaque, all is forgiven, too.

Hit us again, boys. We're just sick enough to take it.

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Jennifer Briggs