After the gnashing of teeth over the strike, after the moaning about a condensed 144-game schedule, after the shuddering at the mention of the words wild card, there was still the longing for the game we remembered and enjoyed. While millions of fans were turned off and presumably lost forever by what happened to baseball off the field, those who remained loyal to the game found that on the field it was every bit as fulfilling as it once was.
There were big moments, of course: Cal Ripken Jr.'s celebratory lap around Camden Yards in the fifth inning of his 2,131st consecutive game; the raising of the American League Central championship flag in Cleveland by Ripken's buddy Eddie Murray; the first pitch by Hideo Nomo in the All-Star Game; the last pitch of the July 14 no-hitter by Ramon Martinez. There were staggering numbers, as well: Greg Maddux's 1.63 ERA and 19-2 record; Albert Belle's 100-plus extra-base hits; Tony Gwynn's sixth National League batting title.
But little things also mean a lot in baseball: Dennis Eckersley giving up a game-winning homer to Manny Ramirez on a perfect pitch and mouthing, "Wow," in admiration; second baseman Roberto Alomar using his glove to swat a double-play ball to the shortstop because he knew he didn't have time to catch the ball, grab it and make a throw; Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, together as a double-play combination for the last time after 18 years, basking in the ovation they got from 14,803 freezing fans in Tiger Stadium; Ken Griffey Jr. banging off the centerfield wall to make a catch even though he had broken his wrist making a similar play four months earlier.
Being in Camden Yards on the night of Sept. 6 was a big thrill for the sellout crowd there, but being in half-empty Yankee Stadium on the afternoon of Aug. 9 was, well, just as special. That day Ripken said his final goodbye to Lou Gehrig before he broke his record, going 3 for 5 and making a sensational play behind second.
For some the 1995 season might be remembered as the Year of the Empty Seat because all but three teams had lower average attendance this year than last. If that serves as a warning to owners and players that they shouldn't trifle with the fans' affections, fine, great, wonderful. But the empty seats had other benefits. They enabled you to spread out. They enhanced your chances of catching a foul ball. And they reinforced in the true baseball fan the feeling that he or she was on to something, a secret, that not everybody could share.