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Going, Going. . . : Disillusion Pushes Even Lifelong Fans Away From Game

April 04, 1993|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a love affair between Steve Brunner and baseball, beginning with their first date, a Milwaukee Brewers' game in County Stadium in 1970.

The relationship blossomed through Brunner's childhood, with Steve gobbling up trading cards and idolizing players, and continued through high school and college, with Brunner going to about 25 games a year.

But Brunner and the game have drifted apart in recent years, and this spring they've gone their separate ways, falling victim to irreconcilable differences.

"Right now I'm a lost soul," said Brunner, 30, vice president of a Richmond, Va., marketing company. "I don't even watch baseball anymore. When I see it in TV Guide, I pass it over like a bowling tournament."

All of baseball's woes--gambling and drug scandals, racism, collusion, strikes, lockouts, arbitration, inflated player salaries and ticket prices among them--have taken a toll on Brunner, one of a growing number of fans who have become disenchanted with the game.

Attendance is high at major league parks, with records being set in six of the past eight seasons, but the wave of fans passing through turnstiles from Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium is now accompanied by a strong undertow of discontent.

Fans are tired of outrageous salaries and .230 hitters making $2 million a year; players spending two or three years with a team, then jumping ship for more money; players charging for autographs; World Series games ending at 1 a.m. in the East; the high cost of bringing their family to the park, and boring, 3 1/2-hour games.

And their frustrations are beginning to show:

* Major league attendance dipped by about 1 million in 1992 after making dramatic gains the previous five seasons.

* Nielsen television ratings for the Saturday Game of the Week--a.k.a. Game of the Whenever CBS Feels Like Showing One--fell from a high of 6.5 in 1985 to 3.4 in 1992.

* In a recent Gallup Poll, only 12% of men ages 18 to 29 said baseball was their favorite spectator sport, compared to 20% who picked basketball and 42% who named football.

* Locally, season ticket sales are down in Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Diego.

"More than anything else, baseball has lost its innocence," said Tom Martin, 38, branch manager for a bank in Evansville, Ind. "Big bucks, television and the entertainment part of it is driving the sport, whereas most baseball fans just enjoy the game itself."

Baseball is hardly on its deathbed. It received a healthy infusion this year with new teams in Colorado and Florida, where season ticket and merchandise sales are soaring, and many cities would still kill for a major league franchise. Just ask Tampa/St. Petersburg.

The game is thriving in cities such as Atlanta and Toronto, which have winning teams, and Baltimore, which has a classic new stadium. And if you know a Rotisserie League player, you know there are still plenty of hard-core fans.

But Pittsburgh couldn't even sell out Three Rivers Stadium for several of its playoff games in 1991 and '92. And television demographics indicate that fewer than 1 million males in the 18-to-35 age bracket, the core of the sport's advertising market, watch a regular-season nationally televised game.

Clearly, something is wrong.

"There's this 40-year-old-plus base of people that have handed baseball down to their kids, but there seems to be a lost generation between 20 and 40 now," Brunner said. "The older people are still following it, but there's a generation gap, and part of that lost generation are followers who have redirected to other sports."

For Brunner, baseball is too boring. He'd rather spend his time and money on an NBA game. Bob Blasingame of Park Hills, Ky., doesn't go to as many Cincinnati Reds games because they're simply too expensive.

John Kaliszewski of East Haven, Conn., won't bring his kids to New York Mets or Yankees games for fear of unruly crowds. Randy Loats of Huntington Beach canceled his Dodger season tickets after nine years, in part because he's tired of the constant turnover in player personnel, in part because he feels too many players, with their bloated salaries and egos, have become bigger than the game.

"It's not like it used to be," Loats said. "It's not as much fun."

It's still baseball, though, and as teams celebrate opening day around the country, the game will likely regain its nostalgic grip on followers, who will faithfully flock to the park.

But that grip doesn't seem as tight as it once was.

DOLLARS AND NO SENSE

Ask any baseball fan what's wrong with the game, and invariably, the first word out of his or her mouth is "money." The consensus: Players make too much of it.

Salaries began to jump with the advent of free agency in the late 1970s, but in the past three years, as the arbitration process spiraled out of control, they have skyrocketed, nearly doubling from an average of $589,483 in 1990 to $1,085,190 in 1992.

It's difficult to fathom Chicago Cub second baseman Ryne Sandberg or San Francisco Giant outfielder Barry Bonds making $7 million a year.

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