Attitude adjustment

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.

"We were so surprised at the level of animosity between players and owners, the things being said back and forth." He wonders whether the strike would have been so bitter and long if the relationship across the board had been better from the start.

For years, Texas Rangers fans have been loyal. Through 23 seasons, they have been rewarded with failure--and often ignored by contemptuous, self-centered whiners and pouters, to boot.

Schieffer says that's going to end. "We are only going to hire people who are glad to be here," he declares. The owner does not name names, and tries to appear noncommittal when I reel off a few who wouldn't meet that standard--such as Kevin Brown, who threw several anti-Texas tantrums toward the end of his time here, and ended up being charged for destroying a team exercise bike during one episode. Then there was Ruben Sierra, who habitually bitched because he didn't have a massive poster like Nolan Ryan's hanging outside the stadium, and nicknamed himself El Caballo because "I am the horse that carries the team." Schieffer seems sincere when he says that, from now on, if a player decides to name himself "El Caballo," he better be able to braid his tail.

"There will be no more people who are unhappy to be here. In the past talent came first and attitude second. Talent is still a requirement, but they will have to want to be here."

Judging from the free flow of suggestions requiring some commitment of their time, the players' attitudes already seem to have shifted. All those empty seats have made an impression on everyone, produced a slightly panicked reaction. Says Schieffer: "They realize something needs to be done."

Manager Johnny Oates said last week that he ponders the game's lack of a labor agreement every time he looks out and sees the stands four-fifths empty. It crosses Schieffer's mind that if there is another strike this summer, the game and its fans might actually be beaten beyond recognition. "When we're always talking money and always arguing..." Schieffer trails off, stopping to show a fan where to get beer from the owners' fridge.

"...I always felt concerned there was a danger of severing the bond between fans and players. I don't think it is broken. But I feel it was almost severed."

If fans were hoping to make an impression, they've done it.
Dean Palmer homers on the field. An owner-for-a-night calls back to Schieffer: "Hey, thanks for signing his contract."

Says Schieffer: "I haven't had this much fun in months."
And you can tell he means it, as he plops down on the cement patio steps to talk to an older fan in a gimme cap. As the owners for a night jump and cheer from their stadium seats outside the sliding glass door, it strikes me: oh yeah, that is what fans used to look like.

Schieffer, smiling broadly, acts like he has known these people for years and is happy to bring them a Diet Coke. I ask if he can recall being in any public place during the past year where there was "not a single person who hated you.''

"No," says Schieffer, shaking his head. "It has been a long time, and it feels good.