No Runs, No Hits, No Jobs: Florida Rues Players' Strike

Baseball standoff hurts everyone from hotel owners to ticket vendors

WHEN Bobby Munoz was a schoolboy, he dreamed of some day playing baseball in the major leagues. As a major leaguer with the Philadelphia Phillies, he probably never dreamed that one day he'd be back pitching on a schoolyard field.

But that's precisely the situation he's in. With no end to the baseball strike in sight, Mr. Munoz was busy throwing curve balls on a high school diamond here this week instead of attending spring-training camp with the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla.

The Phillies hurler says the players union will remain united. ''But I'm anxious to play,'' he adds.

So are others anxious to hear the crack of bats. For the first time in its 100-year history, the major league season is beginning with a players' strike, and everyone from hotel operators to ticket vendors is lamenting the impact on their pocketbooks.

The toll can be large. More than 1.5 million people attended spring-training games in Florida last year at 20 ballparks, generating $350 million. For a host city, spring training can generate up to 250 jobs, according to the Florida Sports Foundation.

''A strike-affected spring season will cost the state dearly,'' says Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D). ''It's like another medium hurricane, but under these circumstances the state can't ask for federal disaster relief.''

In Fort Myers, Fla., spring home to the Minnesota Twins, Mayor Wilbur Smith says small businesses are already feeling the effects of the strike. ''It's hurting the hotels and the people who work in hotels,'' he says. ''Even if they open with replacement players, it's going to take a big bite out of the economy.''

Baseball fans who normally flock to Florida for spring training are staying away this year, and ticket sales in some cities are half what they were in 1994.

At the Atlanta Braves spring-training site in West Palm Beach, Fla., ticket manager Ham Higgins calls this the worst year for advance sales in the 13 years he's been with the Braves.

''We've discounted the ticket prices because of the possibility of the replacement players,'' he says. ''The Braves,'' he adds, ''will honor those tickets even if the strike is resolved and the big guys come back.''

DIE-HARD Atlanta Braves fans are buying tickets despite the strike, although the number of returning season-ticket holders is down significantly. Bud Croft of Cranston, R.I., picked up a Braves season pass two days before the start of spring training, but he has mixed emotions about this year.

''I'd prefer to see the major leaguers, but I can't stay away -- I just love baseball,'' Mr. Croft says.

Even if the baseball strike were settled today, some say it's too late. ''We're selling tickets every day, but just in trickles,'' says Eddie Ferenz, who manages ticket operations for the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater.

Last year, the Phillies drew nearly 100,000 fans -- many from the Philadelphia area. Mr. Ferenz isn't optimistic about this year. ''It would be tough to get half of them back,'' he says.

Striking players are hoping for poor attendance at the replacement-player games. This would create additional financial pressures on the owners and may lead to a settlement of the six-month labor dispute. With this scenario in mind, many major leaguers are in South Florida, working to stay in shape.

If there is a solution to the labor dispute, it's not likely to come from Congress. Although members of Florida's congressional delegation are concerned that the baseball strike will destroy spring training and hurt the state's economy, most are reluctant to jump into the fray between team owners and players.

''Congress should not, and probably cannot, impose a settlement,'' says Sen. Connie Mack (R), the grandson and namesake of the former Philadelphia Athletics owner-manager. ''I campaigned on a theme of less government, and I meant it, even for a game I love dearly.''

Until those negotiations produce results, all 28 teams plan to go through an entire 162-game schedule using replacement players. Baseball executives believe the league can survive, even without the Don Mattinglys and Jose Cansecos. After all, they reason, baseball is bigger than any one player. ''We're optimistic,'' says Rob Butcher, a staffer with the New York Yankees. ''Eternally optimistic.''

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