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Al Lang is a hit, but there are strikes against the dome

"Hey, Gary! How'd you like to go to the Pelicans game this afternoon?" my friend Joey asked when he phoned the other day. "We've been talkin' about it all season _ come on, the weather's beautiful!" "How much duzitcost?" I asked. When he said four bucks, I checked my wallet, clicked the dial on my telephone answering machine to "record" and jumped in his car as soon as he hit my driveway.

On the way to the game, please excuse the pun, my pal Joey and I passed the new, yet to be completed, Florida Suncoast Dome. We chuckled about the fact that the Giants had asked the city of San Francisco for a new stadium ("or we'll move"). The city refused. "Maybe they'll move here," we mused. "Nah, people in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota couldn't afford the ticket prices required to retain the superstars they have," we agreed.

Just that morning, I had been reading in the sports section about how the Giants had signed Will Clark to a new contract. After seeing the dollars involved, I wondered how much the tickets were going to have to be in San Francisco by the end of his contract in 1993. He'll be at the prime age of 29 and making a reported $4.25-million annually. That's right, I said million. Will those tickets have to be $10, $15, $20? To ask it another way, how much can normal go-to-the-ballgame type of people be expected to fork out from their usually scarce leisure dollars to see a game?

I began to think how absurd the professional athletes' pay scales have become in most all professional sports. The common comebacks to such a thought are that they only have a few years to make it and this is America, that's what the market dictates. But where's the limit? Guys are making millions. Who's paying them? The fans. It's sort of like in the real estate industry, where there seems to be a strip store on every street. I ask you, how many hair salons, pizza places and travel agencies can there possibly be? There is a parallel here. Unreasonable surplus.

We went to the game and had a great time. The first place Pelicans won with a sterling comeback from a four-run first inning by the opposing team. Sure, the running between bases wasn't as "race-y" as in "the show," but the play was definitely professional. I looked around at the crowd of no more than 650 and thought how empty the new dome would look with such a throng. After all, isn't Major League Baseball watching attendance here as a small yet telling barometer of potential as it selects cities for major league expansion?

Joey was right, the weather was perfect at Al Lang Stadium that day. It was a spectacular setting with the marina, Albert Whitted Municipal Airport traffic buzzing in and out all afternoon and even an F-16 dropping from the clear blue sky into MacDill for a landing. The well-known singing vendor, Tommy Walton, belted out songs as he sold his wares.

This envelope of enjoyment took me back to the days in Milwaukee when my father would take me to the Milwaukee Braves games played outdoors on natural grass.

What a wonderful time we had watching those greats back then. They made maybe $10,000 a year then _ but, of course, McDonald's burgers cost 15 cents and a gallon of gasoline or milk was 19 cents. We decided maybe $10,000 to $15,000 sounded reasonable, yet here these aging athletes were, stretching base hits, breaking up double plays and hitting home runs. All the action that the Giants could provide _ a little slower, granted _ for only $4. I wonder if Will Clark will want to dive for low-liners and break up double plays when he's through with "the show." I doubt it, he'll be too busy counting. After all, in '93, he's scheduled to make $19,000-plus per hit!

That's kind of where I think the line has been crossed, with the tremendous amounts of money being paid to professional athletes. If the long green kills the superstars' incentive, that'll be okay. If this league survives, the seniors probably will continue to put on a pretty enjoyable show 'cause they love it. I'm sure it will be good enough to attract and entertain spectators. And, after all, isn't that what our great American game was designed to do in the first place?

We watched past the end of the game, when the teams met in the middle of the field to shake hands. Their thrill of victory was still there. The athletic desire to win was obviously still just as strong as it always had been for all of them.

My feelings of satisfaction for such a wonderful day weren't much different from the feelings I used to have when I went to games with my father. I'd seen good baseball, enjoyed the weather and the company of a buddy. It felt good to holler baseball stuff and, at Al Lang, the players can actually hear you!

On our way home, we drove past the new dome again. I couldn't help but think about the folks attending today's game _ the ones with white hair, the ones living on a fixed income. This is, of course, not uncommon here in St. Petersburg. Can they afford big league tickets at the dome? If they don't come out to the games, who will? Some things definitely are going to be different. The tickets won't be $4; the sky and the marina and the airfield won't be visible. There will be no green, lush natural grass, and the players undoubtedly will run faster. Other than that, not much will change in St. Petersburg when Major League Baseball comes. And it most likely will.

Is there going to be a Will Clark type of hero to spark attendance? Will area residents come out in sufficient numbers for the superstars? Surely 500 fans won't support that dome, nor does it bode well for us as a prospective pro team home city.

It's probably good that there is a roof over el domo because there are storm clouds on the future St. Petersburg downtown skyline.

Gary R. Knuth is a businessman and freelance writer who lives in St. Petersburg. My View columnists, invited to contribute on a regular basis, write their own views on subjects they choose.

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