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Any Seat A Cheap Seat, But M’S Still Can’t Buy Pardon

Oh, if these empty seats could talk…

“We can, you dope.”

Our stroll through the Kingdome on Thursday night had brought us to a stop in Section 113. There, in an otherwise packed Row 14, was a conspicuously open chair.

“Well, look who’s empty tonight - ol’ Seat 105,” I said. “What do we call you - ‘Cheekless in Seattle?’ Man, I can’t believe no one bought you tonight.”

His contours were crimson with embarrassment, or perhaps it was just paint.

“Why?” he grumbled.

“It’s opening night! Half-price tickets, fireworks, the Mariner Moose. It’s always a sellout.”

“Where you been, Sherlock? Dincha hear about the strike? Your paper cover that? Left the fans a little honked off - or didn’t you notice the other 24,000 empty seats?”

True enough. We were strolling through the Kingdome during the Mariners’ 3-0 victory over Detroit because we [fi]could[fr]. Aisles and concourses were uncongested. Concession lines were short. After five straight Opening Night sellouts, only 34,656 turned out Thursday - even with tickets and parking slashed 50 percent and the M’s themselves announcing their intentions of winning the American League West.

“Little cranky, aren’t we?” we asked ol’ 105.

“Look, ace, it hasn’t been my year. See these scrapes? That’s from trying to shag a ceiling tile. Then some 300-pound guy buys me for the Seahawks’ season. The good news is he stopped coming at the end. The bad news is, I had an unobstructed view of Dan McGwire playing quarterback. Then the Sonics take their home games to the Tacoma Dome instead of here - my cousin down there won’t let me hear the last of it - and at the Final Four I get some big Irishman who says he’s the coach at Consuela or Godsaveus or someplace and I’m guessing he’s never been able to sit still at a basketball game in his life.”

“And now this indignity, right?”

“Hey, I don’t blame the people who didn’t come. It’s time they voted with their fannies. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be. Look, you’re blocking everybody’s view. Sit down, will ya?”

I plopped down in 105 to consider America’s fractured love affair with baseball.

The wounds left by the players’ strike, the cancellation of the World Series, the insult of replacement ball and the condescending rhetoric of Donald Fehr and Bud Selig have not yet scabbed over - sorry - but continue to fester. Talk show callers are still vilifying owners and players alike. In San Diego and Pittsburgh, second-day crowds barely topped 7,000.

But in Seattle, the anger is muffled. This city has never had much reason to get overly passionate about the Mariners when they did play, so you can’t figure it would be too impassioned about them not playing.

The boos Thursday night were reserved for the umpires - lowly replacements themselves. Outside the Kingdome was a single picket - who admitted he was bound for home to catch the game on the tube.

The only other discouraging word came from a banner hanging from a condominium balcony:

“Strike’s over, bend over,” it read, indelicately.

Inside, there were roars for Randy Johnson, who struck out eight Tigers. There was a thunderous ovation for Ken Griffey Jr., who ripped a three-run homer off the third-deck bunting. Terrific plays in the field by Mike Blowers and Felix Fermin triggered an outbreak of high fives.

Not that the players were blind to the no-shows.

“I guess the fans have a few frustrations with the players,” said Junior. “That’s all right - as long as they don’t throw anything.”

In the vicinity of 105, only one fan seemed inclined.

“I don’t know why I’m here - habit, I guess,” said Joe Sanchez of Seattle. “These guys still don’t get it. I read in the paper today that now they’re going to boycott the All-Star Game.”

That’s right - if the owners renege on another payment to the pension plan, the players will walk for a day.

A few rows up, season ticket holders Al and Betty Harris of Sedro Woolley felt altogether differently.

“We didn’t go to spring training and we have season tickets there, too,” said Betty. “We just didn’t want to see replacement players. And we wouldn’t have come here if there’d been replacements.

“It’s just my feeling that the problem lies with the owners,” offered Al. “They’ve had control over the players since time began. They drove up the salaries, not the players. They forced the strike. I really have no qualms about the money these guys make.”

And as he munched a hot dog with his son, Ron Saario - a schoolteacher from Redmond - found another reason to come.

“I want to see baseball survive in Seattle,” he said. “It’s hard to be sympathetic to anyone when a millionaire is fighting a billionaire. But I’m afraid this is a put-up-or-shut-up year for baseball fans in this city. And besides, the game is always worth watching.”

This, naturally, is what baseball is counting on - and the M’s in particular. Oh, sure, there is a good deal of transparent sucking up going on - the half-price first homestand (which had been planned for replacement ball anyway) and the M’s tossing balls into the bleachers after the pre-game ceremony.

Can the baseball fan be bought so cheaply?

“Over the years, baseball has done everything it could possibly do to destroy itself and it’s still here,” said Tigers manager Sparky Anderson. “This game will never be destroyed.

“People will give it up, but it’s like giving up ice cream. You’ll give it up for a little while.”

Maybe. But right now, it’s the empty seats that are talking, and loudly at that.

Tags: column