Philadelphia Daily News - February 5, 1980

Baseball Facing Jet Lag

 

By Bill Conlin

 

First of two parts

 

There are 47,000 people in Dodger Stadium on Monday night, June 16, and early arrivals sense that something is wrong when the Phillies fail to appear for batting and infield practice.

 

As the 7 35 game time approaches, the fans would be shocked to know that the Dodgers' scheduled opponent is at Denver's Stapleton Airport, rapidly running out of time and options. What began as a routine flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles at 5:55 the day before has turned into a nightmare.

 

In-flight mechanical problems have forced their wide-body commercial jet to land at O'Hare in Chicago. None of the overbooked flights from that busy airport to any of the Coast cities can handle a traveling party of 50. The airline representative does what he can, reserving rooms at an airport hotel and booking the party on a morning flight to Denver. Meanwhile, traveling secretary Eddie Perenz spends the night trying to charter a flight to meet them in Denver. It is a thankless task. The latest Arab oil embargo has put the nation's airlines on a crisis footing. Schedules have been cut by two-thirds and charter flights are almost non-existent – even those contracted months in advance.

 

DELAYED BY heavy thunderstorms in Chicago, the Phillies' flight arrives at Stapleton at 3 p.m. Mountain Time, five-and-a-half hours before game time in LA. By now Commissioner Bowie Kuhn has taken over the the emergency. He asks the Dodgers if the 727 jet they own is available to pick up the Phillies. The Dodgers explain that the aircraft is on charter until the end of the 10-day homestand and is currently in Hawaii.

 

At 7:15, the Dodger Stadium PA announcer makes the following statement: "Ladies and gentlemen, your Los Angeles Dodgers are sorry to announce that due to unforeseen travel difficulties created by the fuel emergency, the Philadelphia Phillies are unable to be here this evening. The Dodgers, therefore, are awarded a forfeit victory by the score of 9-0.

 

"However," the announcer continues amid a rising anthem of boos, "all rain checks will be honored at a future date. Thank you for attending."

 

An unlikely scenario? Perhaps. But major league baseball, a traveling circus which will use the airlines for approximately 884 flights this season, is finding it more and more difficult – and incidentally, more expensive – to move from point A to point B. Current shortfalls of aviation fuel have drastically curtailed charter availability. Commercial schedules have been cut back to most major league cities without a significant decrease in passenger demand. It wouldn't take much of a dislocation – another oil embargo, for example – to drop a major transportation crisis in baseball's lap.

 

MOST BALLCLUBS prefer to travel by charter, if possible. Although costs are higher, charters give them the scheduling leeway they need. And in many cases – getaways after night games in most cities – there are no commercial alternatives to prevent travel on the day of a game.

 

"I can hear the hissing and moaning if we ever have to go to NBA-type travel, where we have to overnight and fly out at 6 a.m. the day of a game," says Ferenz, who like his 25 colleagues spends much of his time poring through the Airline Flight Guide, waiting for confirmations on commercial flights requested months before and hoping a charter will somehow become available.

 

"The Phillies' operating procedure is to charter wherever possible and back ourselves up on all flights with commercial bookings." Ferenz said yesterday. "Things are bad, bad. As of today I dont have one charter. I've got quotes but no commitments. It appears to be a problem of aircraft availability and fuel allocations. A lot of airlines have been forced to curtail charters so they have enough fuel available to keep commercial flights intact. I'm also backed up on a lot of commercial fights, but I haven't heard back on a lot of them by way of confirmations."

THE ESCALATION of ballclub-support costs has been staggering. In 1970. the year Ferenz became traveling secretary, the Phillies' official headquarters in Clearwater was the rococo but elegant Fort Harrison Hotel. The club rate for a single was $13 a day. $19 for a twin. The Phillies were forced to move to the nearby Sand Castle Motel when the Church of Scientology bought the Fort Harrison. Last year the Scientologists, methodically buying up downtown Clearwater, purchased the Sand Castle and Ferenz was forced to move once again. With first-class hotels on the Gulf booked to capacity at rates averaging $65 a day, he was forced to move east to a four-lane traffic jam known as U.S. Highway 19. the Schuylkill Expressway of the Suncoast. Ferenz was able to get a $22 rate at a Holiday Inn, but there was a Catch 22.

 

"That's only for a limited number of players," he said. "The rest of the few rooms we were able to pin down are $38 for a single and $44 for a twin, plus the Florida tax. To get all the rooms we need for spring training, we've had to spread out to a Travelodge downtown and the Ramada Inn up by Dunedin."

 

The majority of a spring-training population – which varies from week to week as media members come and go, rookies are cut and various front-office people arrive – lives in rental properties along the Gulf beaches. Availability has dwindled year by year as cottage units are torn down and replaced by condominiums, many in the $150,000 range.

 

"I just received a bill from our charter bus firm in Clearwater," Ferenz said. "They've added a fuel surcharge of $17.90 for our exhibition with Toronto in Dunedin."

 

ITS A FOUR-MILE round trip from Jack Russell Stadium to Grant Field in Dunedin.

 

"The Phillies are hardly an exception," Ferenz said. "The logistics problems I'm having can be multiplied by 25 traveling secretaries. My colleagues are confirming my own experience – airlines are giving charter quotes without a commitment."

 

What are the alternatives? For one, major league baseball is uneasily exploring the feasibility of purchasing or leasing a fleet of 727s or 737s to meet its travel needs. Hertz Rent-a-727? Club representatives met in New York several weeks ago with the Air Division of Itel Corp. and submitted their schedules for study. The Dodgers have owned their own plane for years and Ray Kroc bought one for the Padres several years ago because the Coast teams have staggering travel costs.

 

The Players Association hasn't done much to help the crunch. Under the Basic Agreement which runs out this month, all players are guaranteed first-class seats where possible on commercial flights. But all except the wide-, body jets have cut first class down to 12-16 seats. Players forced to sit in humbling coach surroundings are guaranteed three seats for each two players. Which means clubs are forced to purchase anywhere from six-to-10 empty seats on many flights.

 

 

With seat belts securely fastened, major league baseball jets into the '80s. Thank you for flying United.