The fans struck first.
What started as an innocent dropping of inflatable balls became an ugly barrage of debris by the end of the Angel-Devil Ray game Thursday night, as the 18,820 fans at Edison Field turned what might have been their last opportunity to see Major League Baseball into a forum for their frustration at the sport's labor battle.
Before players had the chance to strike, Angel fans caused a little work stoppage of their own by tossing beach balls onto the warning track from the right-field bleachers in the top of the seventh inning of Thursday's game against Tampa Bay. Some fans began chanting, "No strike, no strike!"
The chant came back, louder and from every section of the ballpark, in the bottom of the inning. To ensure they were noticed, the fans threw foul balls back onto the field. One almost hit Kevin Appier on the mound from the upper deck.
This wasn't just a peasant uprising; the bourgeoisie got in on it too. Even the folks in the ritzy Diamond Club behind home plate tossed balls back onto the field and basked in the cheers as security escorted them out of the stadium. One man appeared to ignore the chants to throw the ball back as he handed it to his wife. He actually was giving her the chance. Her throw didn't make it over the backstop, but the point was made.
Play was briefly halted in the ninth inning because of trash that was being thrown onto the field.
The frustration reached its peak at the end of the game, after Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff grounded to short for what was possibly the last out of the 2002 season.
Some fans cheered the Angels for their 6-1 victory, which maintained their half-game lead over the Seattle Mariners in the wild-card race. Others booed and tossed water bottles and other trash at the players, frustrated that they would go to bed uncertain if there would be playoffs.
"I would have hoped that the fans would have had a little more class than what they showed tonight with throwing stuff on the field," Angel player representative Scott Schoeneweis said. He had a simple request: "Let us play the game."
The fans had spoken earlier, with what seemed to be an even simpler demand: "Let us watch."
They don't expect to be compensated with millions of dollars. They'll even pay dearly for the privilege. They only want more baseball.
Maybe baseball's powers-that-be were finally listening to them. Maybe the fans could be heard in a room across the country in New York, where negotiators were working through the night to reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement.
"I would hope we'd be playing tomorrow," Schoeneweis said.
"But if there's no deal worked out, I guarantee we won't."
That's the problem with baseball. Every glimmer of hope is quickly blocked out by steel curtains. It's too hard to ignore baseball's perfect record of eight work stoppages in eight opportunities.
It's the same as trying to root for the Angels to get to the World Series, despite all of the past failures.
Joe Navarro has been an usher at the place formerly known as Anaheim Stadium for 20 years. What keeps the 71-year-old around?
"I've gotta work the World Series before I retire," he said. "I've gotta do that."
How tantalizing would it be for that half-game ticket to the playoffs to hold up--and never matter because a strike wiped out the rest of the season?
"My gut feeling is that we're not going to have the strike," Navarro said. "Just my own gut feel. What I read in the newspapers, what I see on TV, there's so many zeroes on the end of those dollar signs, it doesn't seem possible that anybody would go out on strike."
A little faith. Trust.
There isn't enough of that to go around in this sport.
The whole reason the players set a strike date was because they don't trust the owners. They were afraid that if they didn't use the threat of lost regular-season--and especially postseason--revenue that the owners would unilaterally implement their own rules after the World Series.
Why should the players trust management? The owners have been found guilty of collusion. Twice. They consistently cry about a bleak economic situation, but they won't show the spreadsheets to anyone. Even one of the New York Met co-owners filed suit against his partner, accusing him of cooking the books. Speaking of legal action, baseball's higher-ups are currently the target of a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act lawsuit brought by the Montreal Expos' former owners. And if New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner feels the new agreement unfairly targets his team, there's a chance he could sue baseball.
There's nothing these baseball people couldn't ruin. Put the owners in charge of Santa's workshop and they would lock out the elves. You could pay the players to eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts and they'd strike over a lack of milk.
Late Thursday, there still was some hope. We'll see if baseball can manage to take that away too.
J.A. Adande can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org