Baseball Opens With a Big League Cast

Teams try cheap hot dogs and $1 seats to lure back the fans

AH, opening day in the major leagues. The crack of the bat. The smell of the hot dogs. The anger of the fans.

After an eight-month strike that enriched no one but lawyers, the 1995 baseball season has finally begun. Players and owners don't yet have a labor agreement, but they do agree on at least one thing: They must work together to soothe customers alienated by the strike's sorry spectacle.

''We have to go out and make an effort to bring the fans back,'' Florida Marlins manager Rene Lachemann told reporters at his team's last preseason workout this week. ''It's going to take more than signing autographs.''

Thus teams throughout the majors are slashing prices and planning special attractions:

* The Los Angeles Dodgers have rolled back admission prices for their first home game.

Seats at Dodger Stadium will go for $1.50 to $3.50 a piece for the first game, as they did in 1958 -- the Dodgers' first year in Los Angeles. Children will sit free in general admission for the first weekend series of games, and players will be stationed throughout the stadium to sign autographs -- gratis.

* The Kansas City Royals are giving away 5,000 tickets to their first four home games, as well as 35,000 meal tickets to those holding reserved seats. The team has already held an open house in which fans could wander freely through the dugouts and clubhouse and onto the field.

* The Boston Red Sox have halved ticket prices for four games, as well as attempted to make aging Fenway Park more attractive to families through installation of baby changing tables and other equipment. The traditional concession menu of peanuts and hot dogs has been augmented by chicken breast sandwiches and clam chowder from the locally renowned Legal Seafood restaurant chain.

Will discounts and clams be enough to lure in the disaffected? Maybe. After all, fans have always grumbled before about baseball's frequent work stoppages, yet returned to their seats once play resumed.

There are some indications that real damage has been done to baseball's image this time around, however. A new CNN-Gallup poll finds that a whopping 69 percent of Americans say they're less interested in baseball this year than last. Early season ticket sales have been slow.

The Atlanta Braves, for instance, are one of baseball's top teams, an odds-on favorite to win the national league title. Yet at their final exhibition game in Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium, fewer than 1,000 seats were filled by game time. ''What fans?'' Braves right fielder David Justice said in a broadcast interview. ''There's nobody here.''

Some fans have gone so far as to take a cue from the players and owners and indulge themselves in a little litigation. In Dallas, a group of Texas Rangers fans have sued the club's owners, which include Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The litigants want the Rangers to pay them interest on ticket money they held after the strike began. A similar lawsuit filed in New York last year charges that all 28 major league baseball team owners knew the 1994 season would never be completed.

The games during last season ''were for nothing more than glorified exhibition games,'' says Joel Bernstein, an attorney who represents the New York plaintiffs.

Mr. Bernstein, from the Manhattan firm of Goodkind, Labaton, Rudoff & Sucharow, said the games played before the strike ''weren't worth what season ticket holders paid for them. So season-ticket holders are entitled to get back some of the money they paid for the games that were played.''

Bernstein estimates claims against the baseball owners could total more than $300 million. The suit, now pending in the New York Supreme Court, will not go to trial anytime soon. Attorneys expect to begin taking depositions from team owners by mid-June.

Worried about a long-term slide in fan support, major league teams recently unveiled a new national advertising campaign based on the slogan ''Welcome to the Show.'' The campaign's theme attempts to attract a new audience through promoting baseball's sometimes quirky history, without the ponderous appeal to nostalgia that have characterized such attempts in the past.

Others have suggested that the slogan should really be ''Let's Play, For Now,'' or ''We Take August Off -- How About You?'' After all, there is no guarantee that the 1995 season won't be interrupted by another strike.

Players came back after legal rulings restored the major league's old economic system. Owners, after the massive losses of the strike, couldn't agree on whether to lock the players out.

Most observers think this season will be played out in its entirety, however. The owners lost an estimated $700 million, the players an estimated $250 million; neither wants to take such a financial bath again.

A more likely work stoppage might involve the All-Star Game, with players refusing to take part due to a dispute over management's failure to make a pension-plan payment tied to All-Star game revenues last year.

But it won't be a very full season. Teams this year will play a shortened 144-game schedule making the achievement of many high statistical goals more difficult.

Pitchers will have to work more quickly to win a benchmark 20 games. No batter is likely to threaten such marks as Roger Maris's 61-homerun record.

* Contributors Phil Elderkin in Los Angeles and Robert Bryce in Austin, Texas, reported for this article.

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