Expanded playoff fever is not new baseball just didn't catch it before


CHICAGO -- Traditionalists who bemoan baseball's newest concoction shouldn't have bothered picketing yesterday's meeting of owners here. They've already caught playoff fever, later than lodge brothers from other sports but still in time to enliven the somewhat stagnant national game.

Baseball merely is keeping up with the Jordans, and if there's any doubt, try getting a seat for the Bulls against Cleveland. Baseball can only hope its expanded postseason will mean the kind of rabid interest created by leagues where finishing first is nice but not necessary to qualify for equal-opportunity playoffs.

Experience suggests strongly that a hungry public will bite. The more America's fans claim to know about sports, the less finicky they are about what they watch. This is neither a knock nor a felony. Baseball nuts in Colorado and Miami are too busy buying tickets to worry about the possibility that major-league pitching might be worse than at any moment in history. Dilution of talent works when everybody works at it.

Thirty years ago, baseball was king of the hill. Also, in 1963, rivals hadn't quite figured out how to stretch the leisure dollar.

The Boston Celtics won the NBA title that year on April 24, one day before this year's regular schedule concluded.

The Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup on April 18, two days after this regular NHL season ended.

The Chicago Bears' championship victory over New York, their only playoff game, was on Dec. 29. Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta will be Jan. 30.

By clinging to its purest of all playoff format, baseball has been noble yet naive about current events. More television outlets need more programming for more sports junkies who need more fixes.

The 1927 Yankees, perhaps the greatest team ever, attracted just a shade over 1.1 million in paid attendance. A franchise draws that today and it does a breaststroke in red ink.

The idea now is to flood the zone with games, games and more games. The supply simply wouldn't be there if the demand didn't exist.

Criticize the system for diminishing the importance of the regular season and you've missed a point. The object for schlepping to the Bulls vs. Sacramento in mid-January is to be entertained.

Not every movie you see wins an Oscar. But everything significant in sports now comes framed by playoffs, which is why Chicagoans who have waited 10 months for decent weather will flock to a gymnasium on a splendid day in mid-June to witness the Bulls vs. Portland.

Sports leagues voted to eliminate off-seasons on the assumption we would all agree, and they couldn't have been more correct.

Baseball met here to discuss whether it should join the fun. vTC That's really no decision at all, especially since the owners and television have formed this unique partnership. How coincidental this sensitive time in management-labor posturing that the proposal involves those two magic words, revenue sharing.

This is precisely the concept owners have tried to sell the union, with little success. If the new plan doesn't send another message to the players, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf confirmed the obvious by terming it "a reality check" for the players.

With no upfront rights fees to devour, baseball will be challenged as never before to market the product. That should mean fewer owners blasting the players as overpaid, a theory disgusted fans have heard often enough to believe.

Also, should labor bless this new venture, perhaps some of the arrogant athletes will find time to restore diplomatic relations with an alienated public. The essence of the NBA's popularity, after all, is including customers in an atmosphere of one big happy family.

If this proposal flies, the down side is the elimination of all day games during the playoffs and World Series. But let's not beat up on ABC and NBC. There are 100 players earning $3 million or more annually. To generate those prime-time dollars from advertisers, baseball has to play during prime time. Baseball created this Frankenstein, not TV.

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