Baseball's Back: Do We Care?

FANS learned last summer that baseball is more of a business than a game. But the monopolistic owners that run the show apparently still haven't learned business rule No. 1: The customer is king.

By agreeing to start the season April 26 with real big-league players -- after a truncated three weeks of spring training -- Major League Baseball opens the spigot on the cash flow from fans and gets its name-brand players back in front of customers. But its troubles are far from over.

Because no settlement was reached with the strikers, the uncertainty that plagued the game last season continues. The financial disputes with the players are unresolved. The hard feelings stay crystallized. The possibility of a player strike or owner lockout remains.

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All of which should make fans view the season with the wary eye of Charlie Brown, the ''Peanuts'' character who eternally attempts to kick a football, even as he knows that Lucy will always snatch it away at the last moment.

Yes, some fans will boycott the bona fide Boys of Summer, either formally or informally. But most love the game so much they'll find it hard to stay away for long. It was a silent summer after Aug. 12 last year: No sweet sound of the crack of bats from the tube in the den, the car radio, or the boom box at the beach.

For replacement players, the dream of playing in regular-season games and being a ''major leaguer'' died only a day from being realized. Some of them will be assigned to the minor leagues, but most will take their pink slip and head home to resume their lives.

Few but the most diligent of fans took notice of the replacements and their spring-training feats. Those who did saw less raw athleticism than the stars possess, but a lot of hustle and desire. Oakland manager Tony LaRussa is said to want a video of the replacement games to show his superstars what hard work can accomplish.

Baseball has awakened from a seven-month slumber, including a 1994 World Series that never was. But do fans whose hearts were broken have any reason to offer them again to the game they used to love?

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