Tinkers to Evers to...Downs?

If all goes as planned, the scene should unfold something like this:
December 1995. A conference room in New York's Plaza Hotel. The owners of the 28 major league baseball teams are seated around a large roundtable. Their suits are somber. The mood is tense. Dick Ravitch, the owners' mouthpiece, listens as Donald Fehr, chief of the players' union, outlines his proposal for a revenue-sharing plan. Fehr's pitch: a no-strike guarantee from the players in exchange for a pact not to impose a salary cap. The linchpin: an increase in ticket prices to offset rising payroll costs.

An uncertain moment passes, then smiles begin to appear. Ravitch, taking his cue, nods in agreement. A peal of applause as he and Fehr rise to shake hands. But before they can seal the deal, a conspicuous cough sounds from the corner. All heads turn. Jim Downs steps forward. A trim figure with thinning brown hair, he wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the cryptic message Fans of ABNER. "I'm sorry," Downs says firmly. "But the fans will never go for it."

The notion of fans intruding upon the rarefied haggling between owners and players remains, for now, a far-fetched vision. But Downs, a 40-year-old Fort Lauderdale bartender-turned-activist, expects all that to change when his Association of Baseball Nuts for Equal Rights (ABNER) rises to its rightful place in the sporting pantheon -- as the first "lobbying organization of and for baseball fans."

As is stands, Downs says, "The fans are not recognized as an integral part of baseball. We're at least a third of the game, but we have no say. Instead, baseball has become a greedy battle between the owners and players, and it's hurting the game."

The disgruntlement may be hard to gauge down here in Expansion Land, where Saint Wayne and his scrappy Marlins can do no wrong. "But talk to fans in San Diego and Cincinnati, in Milwaukee and New York, and you'll find a lot of people with their faith shaken," argues Downs, a long-suffering Yankees fan with a throat-constricting ire for George Steinbrenner. "I mean, here we are coming down to pennant-race time, and the owners and players are still talking about a strike. Who gets hurt in the end? The fans, that's who."

It was the notorious Strike of 1981, in fact, that indirectly led Downs to launch ABNER. "Me and three friends, including a guy named Mark DeCosta, who had hemophilia, organized the Great American Baseball Journey for Hemophilia," he recalls. "We were scheduled to see a game in all 26 stadiums in 57 days, as a way of showing that hemophiliacs can travel safely." Halfway through the odyssey, the strike struck, and the troop drove back to New York in disgust.

Last year Mark DeCosta died of complications resulting from his hemophilia. "That was kind of the last straw," Downs says.

After months of pacing the floors and drawing up plans, he incorporated Fans of ABNER, Inc., nine months ago. He has contracted 30 representatives across the nation to enlist members at five dollars a pop. Members, in turn, are expected to vote on the pastime's most pressing issues. This year, for instance, the electorate will be asked to weigh in on the proposed playoff expansion, and whether there should be interleague play during the season. Downs and other ABNER honchos plan to use results to lobby owners and players. "We don't expect to have an impact immediately, but eventually we'd like to play a role in negotiations. Right now we're laying the foundation, building our membership," he says.

Downs makes no predictions about numbers, but he has printed up 300,000 membership applications and ballots, and has slated a national advertising blitz for October.

"I've already gotten hundreds of calls," reports Don Sonderman, an ABNER representative in St. Louis who has taken to distributing fliers outside Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals. "People want to express their opinion. That's where our strength is going to be, with all those millions of fans whose only forum now is writing letters to the sports editor or calling radio shows."

(At press time, Downs could not say whether an ABNER rep might be stationed outside Joe Robbie Stadium by season's end, but he urges anyone interested in receiving more information about the group to call 524-5614.)

So far Downs and his girlfriend have absorbed ABNER's considerable start-up costs. The for-profit company receives four of every five dollars its representatives drum up. Downs insists any profits will be fed back into ABNER or "steered toward everything that is good for baseball, from Little League to the major leagues."

But eventually he hopes to see a return on the endeavor. "We don't begrudge the owners and players the money they make," he says carefully. "We just want to make sure the fans have a voice.


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