AUSTIN, TEXAS — EVEN though it's still not clear that major league players will go to bat this year, baseball fans are buying season tickets.
Despite an ongoing strike that could put minor league players in major league uniforms on opening day, April 2, hardcore baseball fans are showing reluctance to give up their season tickets.
''By mid-January, clubs had sold 70 percent of their season tickets,'' says Rich Levin, a spokesman for Major League Baseball.
Last week, most teams were reporting season-ticket renewal rates of 80 percent or more. While club owners say the high renewal rate is due to fans' love of the game, critics say the owners are simply playing hardball.
''Last season, ticket holders didn't get what they paid for,'' says Adam Kolton, head of United Sports Fans. ''And this season, fans are being forced to buy tickets to games they don't want to see, but are buying them anyway for fear that they will lose their seats.''
Indeed, almost every major league team has told their season-ticket holders that they will forfeit the rights to their seats if they do not renew their tickets. And rather than lose their hard-won seats, thousands of fans are paying in advance for an uncertain product.
The St. Louis Cardinals season-ticket holders may be the most faithful. Thus far, 94 percent of Cardinals' season-ticket holders have renewed. In Seattle, 89 percent of the Seattle Mariners' faithful have bought tickets.
Although fans have to pay the full price for their season tickets now, they could get some of their money back later. Half of the 28 major league teams plan to reduce ticket prices by 50 percent if replacement players take the field. The Oakland Athletics will offer a 78 percent discount, the Philadelphia Phillies, a 33 percent discount.
Two teams, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles, will not use replacements. Canadian law prevents Toronto from using replacements at the SkyDome. Orioles' owner Peter Angelos is refusing to field a replacement team.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have come up with an interesting pitch: Most tickets will be cheaper than jumbo ballpark hot dogs, ''if the season starts without an agreement,'' a Dodgers staffer says.
Thus far, 90 percent of the Dodgers' season-ticket holders have renewed.
Most teams are offering a full refund if ticket holders don't like the replacement games. But again, fans who ask for a refund will lose rights to their seats. Only the Boston Red Sox and the Florida Marlins are offering full refunds without losing seat rights to fans who don't want to pay to see replacement players.
A group of Texas Rangers' season-ticket holders filed a law suit against the Rangers' owners, including the state's new Republican Gov. George W. Bush. The plaintiffs include a dozen people who had purchased ''seat bonds'' costing up to $5,000 each, with proceeds used to finance a new stadium. In return for buying the no-interest bonds, bond holders have first rights to the best seats in the stadium. Last December, the Rangers sent letters to the bondholders and told them that they must buy their ticket s by mid-January or forfeit all rights to their seats. But many of these fans don't want to watch replacement players.