Baseball lords try to build pot in poker game with networks


The list of things that you can rely on seems to grow shorter with each passing day, but thank goodness that the greed and stupidity of those who run baseball remain constant.

The owners are getting their first World Series in two years, and early ratings on the first two rounds of playoffs suggest fans -- Cincinnati to the contrary -- largely have gotten over residual anger from last season's strike.

So, apparently feeling their oats, the Lords of Baseball are floating the notion that they are on the verge of getting a television contract for next season, peddling the rumor in yesterday's USA Today that Fox and CBS have essentially agreed on a four-year, $880 million deal to carry regular-season and playoff games.

Just one problem, however. Both Fox and CBS yesterday denied in pretty strong terms that a deal was imminent. In fact, CBS, in a prepared statement, went so far as to say that it hasn't even begun formal negotiations with Major League Baseball or its designated representative, Barry Frank.

Frank, an executive at International Management Group, told USA Today that the Fox/CBS deal was not done, but said he expected to have something finalized by early next week.

Privately, however, network sources believe Frank leaked yesterday's story to USA Today to try to get ABC to up the bidding. ABC is thought to be interested in baseball because of its pending purchase by Disney, a partial owner of the California Angels.

By the way, it's pretty funny that USA Today, which broke the story of the collapse of the Baseball Network without getting any reaction from the team owners -- under conditions set by ABC and NBC -- ends up being the mouthpiece of the game.

Allegedly, Fox would take a package of weekly Saturday afternoon regular-season games, and CBS would telecast on 12 or 13 Thursday nights. The networks would split the league championship series and World Series. NBC has declared that it will not bid on a new rights package.

The $880 million figure would be $120 million less than the $1 billion CBS shelled out five years ago for a disastrous four-year pact in which the network lose a reported $500 million.

The gap between what CBS paid in 1990 and what Fox and CBS are reported to be offering would explain why the owners are interested in getting ABC -- and, by extension, Disney's dollars -- involved.

Meanwhile, for the first time, postseason games would go to cable with ESPN, and possibly Turner, getting portions of the divisional series for about $5 million each.

One thing is certain: None of the reportedly interested parties could come up with a more misguided playoff plan than the soon-to-be departed Baseball Network did for this final season of operation.

The regionalization concept, combined with the willy-nilly alternating between ABC and NBC from night to night, has been a joke, with areas of the country receiving bits and pieces of series at the whim of network executives.

We've been treated to the sorry spectacle of Bob Costas having to apologize on air for an ill-timed game update that made viewers miss part of the game they were watching. Meanwhile, Al Michaels was giving out satellite coordinates so fans could watch more than one game if they had the technology and the patience.

Frank already has promised that every playoff game will be available next season, on one outlet or another. That's a wise decision.

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