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Like victors, baseball rallies late Fast-closing Seattle, 2 Series teams help soothe strike wounds; Still pockets of dissent; TV ratings creep up for stretch, playoffs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Don't tell the players and owners this, but Major League Baseball appears to be indestructible.

Two years of labor unrest may have left fans disillusioned. The baseball strike of 1994 may have left them disinterested. The cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years definitely left them cynical. But the game's new three-tiered playoff system -- replete with interesting teams and intriguing story lines -- is winning them back anyway.

In Seattle, the miracle Mariners not only increased public support for a new stadium with their amazing comeback in the regular season and new divisional series, but also increased national television ratings and may have helped sell network executives on the continued viability of baseball on TV.

In Cleveland, the Indians have emerged as the sport's most exciting team and, with the help of a beautiful new downtown ballpark, have become the centerpiece of a civic renaissance that has gone far to change a negative national impression of the city.

In Atlanta, the Braves have kept fan interest alive with the most successful National League team of the 1990s, and tomorrow will play host to the Indians in the first game of a much-anticipated World Series showdown between the two winningest teams of 1995.

The fans apparently are willing to forgive. Major-league attendance edged up during the final months of the regular season and television ratings for the league championship series were comparable to those from two years ago.

And then there's Cincinnati

But some fans may not be ready to forget. The Cincinnati Reds organization was shamed by embarrassingly small crowds at Riverfront Stadium for the first two games of the National League Championship Series, and the Los Angeles Dodgers didn't come close to selling out either of the divisional playoff games at Dodger Stadium.

In each case, however, there were local factors at work that contributed to the surprisingly soft public interest in postseason play. The Reds have suffered at the gate because of public disaffection for cantankerous owner Marge Schott. The Dodgers remain one of the most popular teams in baseball, but they couldn't have picked a worse time to hold their two divisional playoff games in Los Angeles.

"We had everything working against us during the playoffs," said Dodgers vice president Fred Claire. "First of all, we didn't clinch until Saturday and the first game was Tuesday, so the time frame was very narrow. And we had the O. J. [Simpson] verdict come down on that Tuesday. The phones didn't even ring. That just wasn't where the focus was in Southern California that day."

The postseason didn't go well for the Dodgers on the field, either, but Claire said yesterday that the new three-tiered playoff system -- which he was not in favor of at the time it was instituted -- has helped the game bounce back from the ravages of the still-unresolved baseball labor dispute.

"All things considered, with what we've been through, it has been a great turn of events for baseball," Claire said. "There have been exciting playoff games, good matchups and two great teams in the World Series. Once again, the game has proved that it's better than its leadership."

O's fans start slow, return

Baseball also bounced back in Baltimore, where strike-related marketing problems and another discouraging performance by the Orioles combined to erode interest during the early months of the season. Local television viewers have embraced the postseason, even though the home team never made a serious bid to be part of it.

"The reason for the improved attitude of the fans toward Major League Baseball stems from the fact that it was a great season, although shortened, and the playoff games have brought out the appeal and excitement of baseball," said Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

San Diego Padres CEO Larry Lucchino gets the same sense in California's smallest baseball market. The Padres were struggling to restore public confidence in the organization when the strike further alienated local fans, but an exciting young team is rekindling interest in the club.

"We're sensing a little bit of that locally," Lucchino said. "I think some of that is just the tincture of time. The fans were rightfully upset. They vented their anger for a while. That, I hope, has passed. Then you contrast that with the fun of the pennant races and the postseason and I definitely sense an uptick.

"I think the inherent appeal of the game comes through when people aren't forced to confront the squabbling and the other distractions. The game is just inherently appealing and attractive. That's why it has been popular for more than 100 years."

Not that everything is back to normal. Far from it. Per game attendance was down 21 percent last year, a sharp drop that cut deeply into club revenues and figures to cut sharply into player salaries this winter. Fans were so disenchanted by the early end of a great '94 season and the delayed start of the '95 schedule that hundreds of thousands boycotted the early part of the season.

Television audiences also declined. Soft ratings for the All-Star Game telecast did not bode well for an industry working hard to put together a long-term national television contract.

Bad, but could've been worse

No matter what happens during the World Series, the 1995 season will have been an economic disaster, but it could have been much worse. Total attendance was down as much as 26 percent during the early months of the season, and runaway races in several divisions might have aggravated the situation further if not for the addition of a wild-card playoff berth in each league.

Attendance turned upward toward the end of the season and ratings for several of the postseason games, particularly those involving the finally-ready-for-prime-time Mariners, were strong.

Who would have imagined that? The Mariners never came close to a postseason appearance in their first 18 years of existence, but they staged a dramatic comeback after falling behind 0-2 to the New York Yankees in the divisional playoff and gained a national following as they made a game attempt to upstage the heavily favored Indians in the American League Championship Series.

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