5. Baseball Returns
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69 5 Baseball Returns “Baseball is fun, and what’s happened is that it stopped being fun. We’re reminding people how much fun it is.” —MLB spokesman Jim Small during the first week of the 1995 regular season For one beautiful April day in the Bronx, the hurt feelings and fallout from the strike all but disappeared. Coaches, managers, and players suited up and played ball. A crowd of 50,245 showed up for opening day between the Yankees and the Texas Rangers. Danny Tartabull and Bernie Williams homered, Jimmy Key pitched well, and John Wetteland got a save in his Yankee debut. In the stands, a fan held up a sign that read, “What Strike? Go Yanks!” The next day, 3,000 miles away, the Mariners returned to the Kingdome and shut out the Tigers 3–0. Judging from their opening-day results, it was totally conceivable that these two teams would meet up in the postseason. But within weeks, things began to go downhill for both teams, and the possibility that either team would make the playoffs greatly diminished. Moreover, the fans who returned in droves for opening day disappeared just as quickly in protest. • • • • • • • • • 70 • BASEBALL’S GREATEST SERIES Despite the serenity in the Bronx and Seattle on opening day, things did not go so well in other parts of the country. In Queens, three fans wearing shirts with the word “Greed” on them ran onto the field at Shea Stadium during the Mets’ opener against the Cardinals. The trio threw nearly $150 in singles at players on the field, drawing an ovation from the crowd. During the second inning of the Reds’ opener in Cincinnati, a plane flew over the stadium with a banner reading “Owners + players—To hell with all of you!” In Pittsburgh, fans threw sticks bearing Pirates pennants onto the field after the home team committed several errors. At Wrigley Field, Cubs fans threw magnetic schedules onto the field.1 After drawing 42,125 fans to opening day, the Marlins saw just 18,857 attend the second game of the season. It was an indication of fan backlash that would continue through the season. • • • • • • • • • After their opening-day victory, the Yankees aggressively surged ahead, winning ten of their first fifteen games. There was some visible shakiness caused by the abbreviated spring training, but nothing that drew immediate concern as the Yankees appeared to be on their way toward the division title. But within weeks, injuries sidelined pitchers Jimmy Key, Scott Kamieniecki, and Melido Perez. By the end of June, the Yankees were without three-fifths of their original starting rotation. Key was finished for the season, and Perez pitched only one more inning the rest of the year. Don Mattingly was afflicted by an eye infection that weakened his ability to distinguish between pitches. The Captain hit a big home run against the Red Sox on May 4 but then went nearly two months without hitting another. Tony Fernandez, a key off-season acquisition to fill a hole at shortstop, went down to injury. So did second baseman Pat Kelly and outfielders Danny Tartabull and Paul O’Neill.2 “The injuries really hurt us,” recalled manager Buck Showalter. “We didn’t really have our true team together until July.”3 Those who were healthy played far below expectations. Bernie Williams batted just .194 in May. Wade Boggs batted just .259 that same month. Jack McDowell, considered the team’s number-one starter, went winless in May and posted a 5.75 ERA in June.4 On June 10, the Yankees stood ten and a half games BASEBALL RETURNS • 71 out of first and were in last place in the American League East. The drop in the standings was largely the result of a disastrous series of road and home games against the West Coast teams in which the Yankees went just 4–15. Particularly devastating was a loss in Seattle where Rich Amaral hit the first of his only two home runs of the season in extra innings to end the game.5 Another heartbreaking loss occurred when Luis Polonia was thrown out trying to steal second to end a game against the Angels at Yankee Stadium.6 Off-the-field distractions, such as a ban on goatees by George Steinbrenner, did not help, either.7 Moreover, the Yankees were playing their home games in front of increasingly sparse crowds. It was a clear sign that even in baseball’s biggest...


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