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This strike wasn't his call

Used to be a time when neighborhood baseball fans would approach Vic Voltaggio to chat about the game.

As a 22-year veteran American League umpire, the quick-talking and candid Voltaggio, 53, always has been a good and respected source of inside information. He could tell you just how fast Roger Clemens was the night he struck out 20 Seattle Mariners, or how much the earth really moved at the 1989 World Series, or even what it's like to be five feet from a mob of baseball players who just captured a world championship.

He could tell you _ because he was there, the first two times behind the plate and the third time in the field.

Oh yes, the good old days, back in the time when there was a World Series (did you know the first game was supposed to be Saturday?), or heck, back when there used to be baseball.

Now, they ask Voltaggio about Colorado and Nebraska or Penn State; the Cowboys, Dolphins or Bucs; or anything else but the thing Voltaggio knows and loves best.

"The fans are totally turned off," he said last week from his Spring Hill home, clearly disappointed. "They'd rather talk about college football. Nobody cares about baseball anymore."

They are hurt, Voltaggio said of the fans: "They are going to tell us all to go to hell."

Voltaggio, a New Jersey native, hurts too, and not just on the inside. Even if there had been a World Series, he couldn't have worked it. He had reconstructive knee surgery in May, after the first nine games of the season combined with a spring training injury took its toll.

Since, he has been engaged in therapy to nurse the knee back to full strength, therapy he sarcastically calls "delightful." The plates and screws that hold the knee together have cooperated so far.

It is Voltaggio's second major injury in three years. In 1991, while working a 19-inning game, Voltaggio fractured his hip and missed two months.

"Hey, it happens to us too, not just the players," Voltaggio said. "It's a lot of work behind the plate. It's just 22 years of wear and tear. Hopefully I can make it two more years and then I can go fishing."

It is a mistake, however, to think that the strike doesn't matter to him, merely because an injury had struck down his season. In fact, Voltaggio is growing more concerned every day. He will continue to get paid until January, but if baseball is still at an impasse when the new year rolls in, Voltaggio's salary won't.

And that's not too mention the $35,000-$40,000 playoff and World Series bonus check that won't be coming.

"It affects us financially, especially if it goes past January," Voltaggio said.

More importantly, though, is regaining the trust of fans. He worries that such a task gets harder the longer the owners and players bicker.

"The next few weeks are critical," he said. "The fact that they're talking is good. For the sake of the league, they need to settle it. I mean, they canceled a World Series. You can't just chuck a World Series. That's unheard of."

The 1995 season might be next, although Voltaggio thinks the owners might unilaterally impose a salary cap and start over with new players, leaving the superstars very few options.

"And to tell you the truth _ and this might be a terrible thing _ the fans would forget all about the superstars," Voltaggio said. "The game would be the reason for coming to the park."

It's always been Voltaggio's reason.

And then maybe, just maybe, those neighborhood fans will come back, too.