As the soon-to-be-lamented Baseball Network prepares to set sail on its final voyage tomorrow night, one of its captains is taking steps to make sure no one else comes aboard too soon.
ABC, which joined with NBC and Major League Baseball to form The Baseball Network last season, then angrily announced its intention to pull out of the venture after this season, has told Fox and Turner, which are expected to bid on portions of a new contract, that they cannot negotiate with baseball until Jan. 9, when ABC's exclusive negotiating window closes.
"We are letting baseball and any of the other networks know that it [negotiating] is not proper based on the Baseball Network contract language," said Mark Mandel, an ABC spokesman.
Spokesmen from both Turner and Fox confirmed that their respective networks had received a letter from ABC, but each declined to comment further.
CBS also is believed to have an interest in the baseball contract, but a network spokeswoman said she didn't know if the network had received similar correspondence from ABC.
Both the letter's content and its timing are surprising since ABC and NBC went to such great lengths to express their dismay with baseball over perceived foot-dragging about plans for next season. NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol ruled his network out of baseball for the rest of the century, and it was presumed that Dennis Swanson, head of ABC Sports, was doing the same.
The Baseball Network contract's language specifies Aug. 15 as the first date that a party can withdraw from the deal for the following season, but Mandel said other language in the deal gives ABC and NBC exclusive negotiating rights for a period that could extend through Jan. 14.
The letter opens questions over whether ABC is merely playing hardball with baseball and the other networks or if it is truly interested in getting back into baseball and is perhaps buying itself more time while owners and players thrash out a labor agreement.
"We're just letting the document speak for itself. We're not playing our hand out in public," said Mandel.
At any rate, ABC's portion of The Baseball Network starts tomorrow night, with six weeks of regional telecasts, before NBC takes over in mid-August. Baltimoreans will see the Orioles take on Kansas City from Camden Yards at 8 p.m. on Channel 2, with Gary Thorne and Paul Splittorff on the call.
Weekend viewing tips
* The second of ESPN's "Voices of the Game" series of specials on the legends of baseball broadcasting will air Sunday at 5:30 p.m., narrated by Jon Miller, with a segment devoted to Chuck Thompson.
* That really nice Kenny Albert will be filling in for the vacationing Mel Proctor on Orioles telecasts on Channel 54 tonight and Home Team Sports on Sunday.
* ABC will make history Sunday when Lyn St. James joins the coverage team for the Molson Indy car race in Toronto (Channel 2, 1:30 p.m.). St. James, who drove at Indianapolis, will be the first woman to provide commentary on a race telecast in American broadcast history.
* The last tournament in NBC's U.S. Golf Association package, the women's U.S. Open, will air tomorrow and Sunday from Colorado Springs (Channel 11, 3 p.m. both days). It will be anchored by Dick Enberg, who has logged some serious frequent-flier miles between the French Open, the U.S. Open men's golf tournament and Wimbledon in the past five weeks.
The summer doldrums have settled in, even in the ratings game, reports Chris Mecchi, ratings researcher at channels 45 and 54, and this week's sole and official "On the Air" ratings provider.
Only the four Orioles-Chicago White Sox games last week and Sunday's men's singles final from Wimbledon topped the 5 level in local ratings, with most everything else in the 2 or 3 range. It will be interesting to see what this weekend's expected heat wave will do to viewing levels.