A thousand disgruntled fans set in the bleachers at the Philadelphia training camp here this morning, staring blankly at an empty field for two hours.
While these folks, who think it's a kick just to watch Pete Rose tie his shoe, were cooling their heels, the Phils were in a union meeting in their clubhouse voting unanimously to ratify the baseball strike authorized by the players association's executive board Tuesday.
"The bums want another hundred grand a year so they can finish fourth again," groused an elderly Phil fan.
"Go to hell, Miller," said a large fan, stepping in the path of Marvin Miller, the players' union executive director who will conduct 25 more such strikes votes between now and Arpil 1. "The more you guys get, the more you want."
No better emblem could be found for spring training '80 than the empty diamond and the disgusted fans here.
"Look at 'em," said a Phil official, pointing to the old fans twiddling their thumbs in the noon sun. "You can practically feel their arteries hardening."
More likely, their hearts are hardening, a bit, too. Baseball is quickly bringing a pox on both its houses.
Miller and Ray Grebey, the owners' spokeman, met again in negotiations here this afternoon -- their 24th "no-progress" round of talks.
The real game this March isn't baseball. What is resembles most is a dangerous, high-stakes kind of stud poker. The pot on the bargaining table is worth $50-to-$100 million over the next four years.
The owners have gradually tipped their hand, and it's a strong one, especially in its strategic overview.
At last, after four years of trying to bid each other into extinction over free agents, the bosses have finally closed ranks and started acting like the monopoly they are.
First, the owners cooked up two no-longer-secret backroom plots for improving their traditionally nonexistent unity. They imposed a system of zip your-lip fines (up to $500,000) for any management type whose loose talk or rank-breaking hurt the group. And they gathered a multimillion-dollar antistrike war chest to help poorer teams weather a strike and hold the policy line.
Next, the owners concocted cogent and subtle negotiating proposals that figure to appeal to the public's sense of fair play and common sense while driving the players' union crazy with their disguised, long-range financial implications.
Salary scales, partial compensation and instant pension vestiture are management's three big negotiating aces.
Salary, scales would cut pay for younger players.
Partial compensation would depress the value of free agents in the open marketplace, thereby cutting the salaries of older players and, in time, lowering the whole salary structure of the game.
And instant pension vestiture would include rookies in the big league pension plan after just 43 days instead of four years.
No current big leaguer would take a pay cut in '80. In fact, under salvary scales, some players with less than six years experience might get a raise. Additionally, players with less than four years experience would suddenly qualify for the sweetheart of all pension plans.
Most of the owners' gains would come in the furture and would affect the next generation of players more than the current one.
In other words, the owners hope to sow disunity among the players, playing off their long-term interests against their short-term interests against their short-term desire not to lose money by striking.
"The owners think the players are dumb and don't see the hidden hooks," said Miller today. "They see them instantly."
That's why the player's board chose the first day of spring training to call for strike ratification. That's why Miller was at the camp of the team with the highest payroll in 1979 getting a unanimous vote from stars like Rose and Mike Schmidt.
If the owners are counting on disunity, then the players will counter with an instant show of big-name solidarity. It's saber-rattling and bluffing of a high order.
Management will gladly watch the players give themselves a black eye by threatening a strike in an industry in which the average annual salary is $131,000 a year.
Won't simplistic public opinion, like the grumpy fans in Clearwater stands today, turn on the greedy players?
As Opening Day approaches, the players will presumably feel the pinch of maintaining a solid public front while the owners can simply keep silent.
So, who's bluffing, what's in the hole and who'll fold?
Unforntunately for baseball and its fans, neither side is bluffing, both have acres in the hole, and nobody is going to fold anytime soon.
"It's a fair assumption that because the game's popularity is so high, both sides feel they are in strong financial positions," allowed Miller today. "If the game were in decline, rather than climbing, it would be a factor in favor of a settlement."
The players, apparently both wealthy and unified, assume that with a strike vote in hand, their bargaining position will be powerful. After all, the only thing they want is the status quo under which the game has blossomed.What's simpler?
The owners, slapped in the face again last week by the arbitration decision that awarded Bruce Sutter a $700,000-a-year salary, are convinced that this contract battle is their Rubicon.
The players association isn't going to give back wide-open free agentry just to be nice. After all, management is still making enough profits so that it won't open its collective books to prove its poor-mouth claims.
Baseball will need great good luck, good will and good sense if the empty diamond in Clearwater today is to be the only one at which unhappy fans must gaze this year.