Baseball teams open season

The Associated Press

By the time John Burkett throws the first pitch of the 1995 season tonight, it will have been 257 days since the last pitch that mattered, the biggest gap between games in baseball history.

What will the crowd at Joe Robbie Stadium, plus all of those watching on ESPN, see when the sport finally returns?

Hitters ahead of pitchers, probably. A spring training shortened by the strike has caused the early-season role reversal. Bret Saberhagen and Curt Schilling are among those off to slow starts, and the average exhibition ERA is over 5.00.

More injuries, certainly. Roger Clemens and Juan Gonzalez already are on the disabled list, and many more stars have been hobbled by pulled hamstrings and other nagging problems.

''Every baseball player gets a strain, except maybe Cal Ripken,'' Gregg Jefferies said.

A lingering labor dispute, maybe. Locked-out umpires plan to picket the Los Angeles-Florida opener if there's no new contract. Replacement umps, embroiled in several arguments so far, have been lined up to work the real games, if necessary.

And, for the first time since a strike lopped off a week in 1972, fans will go into a season knowing that it will not be a full 162 games.

Cut down to 144 games, there's almost no chance that Ken Griffey Jr., Matt Williams can come close to chasing Roger Maris' home-run record, as they did last season. There still may be 20-game winners, but there's no hope of seeing a magical year when someone Greg Maddux, maybe? is on pace to win 30.

Of course, there's one record that fans will focus on from the beginning. Cal Ripken starts the season having played in 2,009 consecutive games. He's scheduled to break Lou Gehrig's mark of 2,130 on Sept. 6 at Baltimore.

But in a way, 1995 is a lost season, even before the first pitch. It's broken, and even a signed settlement between owners and players won't be able to make it whole this year.

Then again ...

By the time Randy Johnson faces Cecil Fielder in Seattle's opener Thursday night, will fans have rushed back to embrace

baseball?

A day before the Dodgers and Marlins played, the game still was not sold out. Other openers also had seats remaining.

Six teams, including Florida and Toronto, have cut their average ticket price for the whole season. Another 15 teams have kept their average price at 1994 rates.

It's part of baseball's plan to give back something to the fans. Many players spent extra time in spring training signing autographs, and say they will do the same when the regular season starts.

Just as much, baseball hopes it can create enthusiasm with excitement on the field and the promise of a World Series. This, now, will be the first year of the three-tiered playoff system.

As expected, rich Atlanta and the New York Yankees begin the season as the favorites to win the World Series. The Braves, at 4-1, recently Marquis Grissom as their leadoff hitter and the Yankees, at 5-1, acquired pitchers Jack McDowell and John Wetteland and shortstop Tony Fernandez.

Minnesota and Pittsburgh, not big spenders, each are rated last at 200-1 to win the Series.

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