This Season, the Baseball Fans Strike Back

Al called the other day. He wanted to explain the playoff situation. I've got a piece of two Dodger season tickets, you see, and we have to figure out who'll get to go to the playoffs.

There's six of us in all, so Al is holding a drawing. He'll pick two names and those two will get the tickets for the divisional playoff games on Tuesday and Wednesday. If the Dodgers win the playoffs, we'll have to figure out who goes to the National League Championship Series. Then comes the World Series. Hard to imagine the Dodgers getting that far, but it's possible.

But you know what? Even if the Dodgers had failed to make the playoffs, I'd have been satisfied. Although I've followed the Dodgers since the days of Koufax and Wills, although I read everything I could about the fabled Bums of Brooklyn of the '50s, I don't feel strongly about these Dodgers. Oh, I'd rather they win than lose. But the '95 season has already proven satisfying.

It's satisfying, for example, to see so many empty seats in so many stadiums across the nation. It was pleasant to read about how many players saw their salaries drop. Most of all, it was satisfying to witness how Dodger fans rallied around Mike Busch, the former replacement player who was scorned by his teammates.

If 1994 will be remembered as the Year of the Strike, 1995 should be remembered as the Year of the Fan.

I will never forget the game I witnessed on Wednesday, Aug. 30. The Dodgers lost, 8-1. They absolutely stunk up the joint. It was ugly. And it was beautiful.

"Just wait," I told my friend Dave as we headed for my seats on the blue level. "There's going to be a chant for Mike Busch tonight."


If you're a baseball fan, you'll know that this wasn't a bold prediction. If you're not, here's a little background:

Mike Busch was a struggling minor leaguer in the Dodger organization who defied the striking major leaguers by playing in spring training replacement games. Knowing he would be scorned as a "scab" by major leaguers, Busch said he decided he had to do what was best for himself, his wife and their child. When the strike ended and the major leaguers came back, Busch went back down to the minors. Management assured him his involvement in replacement games, or how Dodger players might react, wouldn't affect their baseball judgment in case they thought he could help the major league team.

An injury gave Busch his chance. Dodger players, led by veteran Brett Butler, a union activist, said they planned to ostracize him and his family. When Mike Busch took infield practice before games, Eric Karros wouldn't stand at first base to take his throws. They continued the silent treatment as they lost a game to the lowly Mets, 4-3.

Remember in elementary school how there was one kid who didn't fit in? One kid everybody picked on for no good reason? That was Mike Busch.

Oh, but the fans liked Mike Busch. He didn't quit on us last year. He didn't fall for the phony romantic notion that striking millionaire baseball players are somehow akin to people who labor on farms, in mines and factories. It's not that fans sympathize with the owners. Not at all. It's that we understand, instinctively, that a so-called baseball union that doesn't honor striking umpires or striking concession workers isn't really a union at all. It's a cartel.

So on that warm August evening, the fans arrived with an attitude.

Leading off for the Dodgers, of course, was Brett Butler.

"BOOOOOO!" said the fans.

Butler, a gamer, smacked a single. Mild applause. Indeed, every time Butler came up, there were boos, long and loud. Although Butler seemed up to the challenge--every at-bat was a good one--his teammates were residents of Choke City.

Mike Piazza, a popular player who may end up in the Hall of Fame, stepped to the plate three times with the bases loaded--and struck out each time. Once he came up with nobody on and got a single. "BOOOO," said the fans. Yes, they booed a hit by Piazza.

Three times, the Dodgers tried to lay down sacrifice bunts. And three times they popped it up for easy outs. Oh, and of course there was a key error by shortstop Jose Offerman. (Overheard at another Dodger game: "Know how to spell Offerman? There's an O, two Fs, and and 35 E's . . . ")

Like I said, it was ugly. Along came the eighth inning. It was soft at first, then it grew: "We want Busch! We want Busch! We want Busch!"

We got our wish. Mike Busch entered the game as a pinch hitter in the ninth to enthusiastic cheers. Thousands stood in tribute. I worried that the Met pitcher might throw at his head. He didn't and Busch struck out. We cheered him on his way back to the dugout.

It was a great game. The Dodgers got creamed and it was terrific.

On the following day, the Dodgers staged a news conference with Butler, Piazza and Karros seated around Busch. We accept him, they said. Mike is part of the team. Really. It was nothing personal.

This bit of groveling was shown to the fans on the big screen at Dodger Stadium. Later, when the announcer introduced Butler, there were more boos. The fans weren't going to forgive and forget just like that.

Remember the letters that came in to The Times' Sports section? At one point, there were 304 supporting Busch, only 16 siding with Butler and the players.

These days, Mike Busch is back on the bench, but he's had some moments. He's hit two home runs, one of which helped the Dodgers win a game. The teammates who had treated him like dirt are shaking his hand and patting him on the back. And now there are many more cheers than jeers for Butler.

So I'm satisfied. That one game made my season. It was as if the fans had risen up and told the Dodgers: "Hey, you jerks, it's not whether you win or lose. It's how you play the game."

Still, it would be nice to see the Dodgers back in the Series. I hope Al draws my name for Game 7. Say it's two outs in the ninth, Dodgers down by three. The bases are loaded and Lasorda looks down the bench for a pinch hitter, a guy who could hit it out of the park, a guy who can handle the pressure. . .

Alas, it was reported Saturday that Mike Busch probably won't be on the Dodgers' playoff roster.

Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

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