With baseball negotiations deadlocked and spring training camps closed now for 22 consecutive days, Robert Johnson has run out of patience.
“It’s time for the fans’ concerns and interests to be addressed,” said Johnson, an unemployed accounting clerk from Huntington Beach. “We do not believe the fan should stand idly by and be forced to accept whatever result comes from the player-owner squabbles.”
Johnson’s solution: Boycott baseball.
For every spring-training or regular-season game cancelled by the owners’ lockout, fans should retaliate by refusing to attend two Angel games, Johnson said.
Johnson hopes to stir support for what he calls the “Orange County Fan Revolt, 1990,” a boycott of games designed to bring players and owners to their collective knees. His effort is one of several around the nation by groups purporting to represent fans. They all share a common goal: To pressure owners and players into resuming baseball.
The idea of fans boycotting games may seem drastic. After all, games are what fans want to see.
But similar sentiments are spreading from coast to coast as frustration builds over the stalled contract negotiations.
“I am not going to advocate a boycott . . . at this point, but I will support any group out there doing it,” said Rob Godfrey, a New Jersey delicatessen owner who organized a letter-writing campaign and one-day fan boycott in 1985 trying to persuade players not to strike.
“Realistically, I think a boycott without unity would have little effect this year,” said Godfrey, founder of the National Baseball Fan Assn. (NBFA). “But when you look at the alternative, doing nothing, hey, we’ve got to do something.”
Consequently, the NBFA, which says it has 1,000 members who pay $2 a year in dues, has begun urging baseball fans to write “Play Ball” on postcards and mail them to Post Office Box 4192, (the number of hits Pete Rose needed to break Ty Cobb’s record) Mount Laurel, N.J. 08054. Godfrey said he’ll dump the mail on baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent’s porch.
Although he has received only about 200 letters, Godfrey said, 50% of the writers are saying: “We’ve had enough, we tolerated you in ’85, we tolerated you in ’81. You’ve just lost us forever.”
Meanwhile in New York, another organization, Strike Back, is claiming a much more successful letter-writing campaign protesting the lockout.
“Groups like ours are one reason the strike ended so quickly” in 1985, said founder Eric Yaverbaum.
Although fans have always flocked to ballparks after work stoppages, “we’re reaching the fans’ tolerance level,” Yaverbaum said. “How often can you do this without fans doing something about it?
“I don’t know if 1990 is the year, but it’s just a matter of time. This is the third (interruption of games) in 10 years.”
Yaverbaum says his group has received more than 10,000 letters.
“The fans are an entity to be reckoned with,” he said. “Once we get 50,000 letters we’ll take them and dump them at Fay Vincent’s office.”
If the lockout or a subsequent players’ strike results in a cancellation of regular-season games, Yaverbaum favors a boycott.
“If these guys go out on strike when they come back . . . we want to boycott baseball an equal number of games,” he said. “If we do it just this one time we’ll never have to do it again.
“Sooner or later . . . what we’re pushing here will become reality. The fans will realize . . . the power is in their hands. Don’t confuse what hasn’t happened in the past with what can happen in the future.”
In the past, fans’ organized efforts have had meager results.
“We organized a walkout of Veterans Stadium,” Godfrey said of the 1985 season. “It was after the seventh inning. We passed out literature in the stands and people got up and walked out.”
Such a protest might well go unnoticed in Southern California, the land where the seventh-inning stretch signals the dash to the parking lot.
What is the likelihood fans will stay away from the ballpark in protest?
“I think the only way to answer that is that we hope we don’t get to that point,” said Los Angeles Dodger spokesman Mike Williams. “I don’t know there is any way to tell until a situation like that occurred.”
“We hope they don’t feel that is necessary.”
Angel spokesman Tim Mead said threatened fan boycotts are not new.
“We heard that in ’81,” Mead said. “Fans are paying customers with the choice and with the option. You certainly wouldn’t like to see it . . . “
“The individual’s entitled to his decision. As an industry, we hope that it doesn’t get that far.”
Nevertheless, Larry Fick, a former vice president of the California Angels Boosters Club, said he might be willing to boycott “to send a signal. But one or two people is not going to make that big a difference.”
So far, fan unrest has had little effect despite the threat of class-action lawsuits by Florida cities unhappy about losing spring training revenue and another suit that was filed against baseball in Kansas City by a group called the Major League Baseball Fans Assn. complaining that “players are being deprived of conditioning.”
The likelihood of the lockout ending appears no greater on Day 23 than it did on Day 1.
“I’ve reached an agreement with the union that there will be baseball in my administration,” Vincent wisecracked recently. “We just haven’t agreed on which year.”
So Robert Johnson wants the world to know he’s not going to take it anymore. He’s taking action.
“We want them (the players) to lace up their cleats and play ball,” he said.
“So we’re going to tie white shoe strings to our (car) antennas. It’s symbolic of our protest. And of our budget.”