Will fans turn on to baseball?


If good humor were all it took to vanquish the anger baseball fans feel toward a sport whose participants engaged themselves in an 7 1/2 -month long hissing match that settled next to nothing, then the task would be complete.

Major League Baseball, for instance, launches its marketing campaign, titled "Welcome to the Show," which is expected to draw on the wacky side of the game, during tonight's Los Angeles Dodgers-Florida Marlins opener (7:30, ESPN).

ESPN, which has the most to lose in terms of ratings in the early part of the season because it is the only nationally oriented regular baseball broadcaster, has debuted a funny bit during which a beautiful woman "morphs" into John Kruk over the narration of Billy Crystal.

But will yuks be enough to cajole the most disaffected fans to come back to the parks or, more importantly, tune in the games? Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, your "Sunday Night Baseball" announcers, certainly hope so.

"I believe the fans will be very excited. The fans will say, 'Hey, it's my game, and I'll be out there enjoying and watching my game,' " said Morgan.

Miller, who also will join Morgan in Denver for tomorrow's inaugural game at Coors Field between the Colorado Rockies and the New York Mets, thereby missing the Orioles' opener in Kansas City, sounds a less optimistic note, particularly about attendance and enthusiasm in cities where the teams get out to a slow start.

"If they start out poorly, this could be a very difficult year, and there'd be no telling when those people will come back," said Miller, who will miss tonight's Sports Emmy awards, in which he is nominated for best play-by-play announcer. Last night's "Outside the Lines" special on ESPN was a fitting epitaph for Howard Cosell, who died Sunday morning. The show allowed the sportscasting legend to tell his own story through a 1992 interview with New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte.

Even though Lipsyte seemed a bit reverential, Cosell's natural abrasiveness came through to present a full picture of his life and times.

By the way, it seemed a tad odd that, save for a brief feature at the top of Sunday's "Passion to Play" broadcast, ABC Sports did little to mention Cosell, though the network's "World News Tonight" and "Good Morning America" programs, each produced by the news division, run by former sports president Roone Arledge, did extensive profiles.

A network spokesman said yesterday he did not know of any plans for a tribute to Cosell.

Granted, in later years, Cosell burned many bridges at his former network with some ill-tempered remarks about some of his former colleagues, and many of those wounds may still not have healed.

Nonetheless, ABC should find room either in prime time or during its sports schedule to pay homage to one of the greats of the industry.

Finally, a tip of the cap to Ted Patterson of WWLG (1360 AM) for re-airing during last night's "SportsNight" show an interview he had conducted with Cosell. At a time when ABC and NBC were interrupting their schedules for coverage of President Clinton's remarks Sunday at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds in the aftermath of last week's bombing, CBS was carrying final-round coverage of the Greater Greensboro Open golf tournament, a seriously misguided decision.

In fairness, the network did break in frequently with Dan Rather anchoring updates, but it should have taken the next step and carried the speech.

Things to ponder

Fox finally got some good ratings news with its hockey coverage. The national overnights for Sunday's regional coverage got a 2.7 household rating number in 32 metered markets, up 42 percent from the 1.9 ABC got during the same week last year, which was during playoff coverage.

Connecticut public television's game coverage of the national champion Huskies women's basketball team drew such good ratings (8.4/23) that all four Hartford commercial stations are bidding for a package of games for next season, a rarity among women's basketball teams.

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