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Fans Will Swallow Whatever Teams and Owners Cook Up

October 25, 1987|PETER GOLENBOCK | Peter Golenbock, an author in Ridgefield, Conn., has written several books on baseball; his next will be about the Red Sox.

In Boston around the turn of the century there was a mob of loyal fans of the American League baseball team that called itself the Royal Rooters. These fans, 400 strong, spent spring training with the Red Sox and went on the road, riding the Night Owl with the players from city to city.

The motto of the Royal Rooters was to "support the Boston team with every cent and every minute they can afford." They were such a part of the team that before each game, led by a brass band, they marched into the ballpark, onto the field and to their customary seats.

Game 6 of the 1912 series was to be played in Boston, and the day was overcast and chilly. The team treasurer, a genius by the name of Robert McRoy, feared (as he later explained) that only a small group of the Royal Rooters would show up because of the weather, and hence he decided to protect the club against possible lost sales by selling the Rooters' usual seats on a first-come, first-served basis.

When the Rooters arrived at the ballpark, they marched onto the field and toward their seats with the band playing lustily, only to pull up short; their seats were occupied.

The seat-holders, understandably, refused to move, and when the milling Royal Rooters stood firm in the sight line, they were pelted with peanuts. Red Sox second-baseman Heinie Wagner pleaded with them to get off the field, concerned that the game might be forfeited.

Management then resorted to force. Mounted police rode into the Royal Rooters at full gallop, prodding them off the field with clubs.

After the game, the disgusted aggregation gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Red Sox offices, and with the band playing "Tammany," they hip-hip-hoorayed for the day's winner: the hated New York Giants.

The Red Sox were only slightly miffed. "In the spring they will be as loyal as ever," said one smug club official. "They always have."

And he was right. In fact, it didn't even take until the spring. When the Red Sox won that fall's series, at the head of Boston's victory parade were the Royal Rooters.

Which brings us to the football strike of 1987. We've read that the owners and the players don't give a damn for the fans. The truth is, they don't have to, and they know it. They've always known it. Whatever insult or abuse they heap upon the cursed fan, those making the decisions for the various leagues and teams know that there is something in the blood of sports fans that inevitably brings them back to the fold. And if, by chance, a handful of fans don't return, the moguls, especially the football brass, know that others will gladly take their seats.

How else can you explain why so many football fans have accepted artificial turf, cookie-cutter, cereal-bowl stadiums, TV timeouts, $20 tickets for end-zone seats, the forced purchase of tickets for meaningless exhibition games along with season tickets--and all for what is really ersatz football?

In Dallas during the final week of the football strike, the phony Cowboys played the Washington Redscabs in front of 60,000 fans. I guarantee you that if the strike had lasted all season, by Thanksgiving every seat would have been filled. And it would have been the same all over the country.

The fans, unlike the philosophers who ask whether The Game is a sport or a business, do not wish to analyze issues or debate ethics. It obviously does not matter to them that the National Football League, a declared monopoly, refuses to allow its players to bargain fairly for their services. They want only to watch the behemoths--any behemoths--play.

It leaves one breathless to think what the NFL, knowing of the hold that they have on their fans, is planning next. If their ratings don't improve, perhaps they will consider scripting the games and videotaping them for television like the pro wrestlers do. Boring or botched plays would be done over until done to perfection. Every game would be super-exciting TV fare, with triple reverses and 95-yard touchdown runs and spectacular catches galore, making the NFL telecasts as dramatic and climactic as the soaps. Ratings would soar, team profits would skyrocket and the owners would continue their climb up the Forbes list of the richest men in America. Then, to cap the season next January, the NFL could bring us Superbowlmania I. The teams play on a field completely caged-in. All rules are suspended. Think of the possibilities.

The fans can hardly wait.

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