Reports of baseball recovery greatly exaggerated

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From virtually all corners, everybody's convinced that baseball's back. If it isn't Peter Gammons preaching the good word about the sport's supposed "renaissance," it's Mike Lupica or someone else braying on and on about how the national pastime has gotten off the canvas.

That's all well and good. Baseball has taken a few roundhouse punches -- most of them self-inflicted, we might add -- over the past decade, and it would be great to have a healthy game once again.

But you also have to wonder if baseball's return to prominence isn't, like the movie "Godzilla," a creation of media hype that crumbles under the weight of scrutiny.

First, we're told that national television ratings are up. That's true, but the rise is incremental, not a boom, and is centered mostly on the consistent appearance of high-profile teams such as the Yankees, the Indians and the Cubs, who are having good seasons and whose fans will watch their team no matter whom they're playing.

Then, we hear that baseball must be back because the New York teams are playing so well, and as we all know, whatever is good for New York is good for everyone, right?

Well, forgive the rest of us commoners if we don't buy into that malarkey, and a lot of New Yorkers don't, either. Except for the recent Yankees-Mets interleague series, sellout crowds in Gotham are still few and far between.

Next, we're told the players are embracing the fans as they rarely have done in recent years. Oh, really? Then, why did Ken Griffey have to be shamed into participating in the Home Run Derby on Monday? And why is Mark McGwire, seemingly on the verge of breaking a record that could only wrap himself within the bosom of fans, musing about taking himself out of batting practice and away from fans?

Perhaps the biggest sign that baseball still doesn't get it is that the owners will apparently vote today to take the "interim" off interim commissioner Bud Selig's title.

Only in baseball could a guy like Selig help to push his predecessor, Fay Vincent, out of a car, set the scene to take the car over a ravine by inciting the players to strike, then be given the keys to the car and asked to drive without having to go to driving school.

Having said all that, we have to note that Monday's "Home Run Derby" posted ESPN's second-highest non-NFL rating ever, a 7.7, proving that you can't believe everything that you hear or read.

No one's doubting that it would be terrific for every stadium to be just as full as Camden Yards is for every game and for a large number of viewers to take in the game on television. Those things may happen, but we all ought to wait until they actually do before we leap to conclusions.

News from Bristol

The news just couldn't be better for the folks at ESPN, where the ratings are up, restaurants are opening and deals are getting made all the time.

The self-proclaimed "worldwide leader" has announced that its prime-time ratings for the second quarter of the year, from April to June, are up 18 percent from the first quarter, with "SportsCenter" experiencing a 13 percent ratings boost. In addition, ESPN and ESPN2 remain the top two cable outlets for men in the 18-49 and 25-54 age demographics during prime time.

Meanwhile, ESPN and the baseball players union have reached agreement on telecast rights for "Players Choice Week," a collection of events and competitions. ESPN will carry the "Players Choice Awards," the baseball players' answer to the Oscars, live on Oct. 30, and will tape a new home-run competition and a skills challenge to air early next year.

Finally, in conjunction with the opening of the new "ESPN Zone" this weekend, Chris Myers will bring his "Up Close" interview program to the restaurant, talking to Art Donovan tonight and Brooks Robinson tomorrow at 6 o'clock each evening.

"SportsCenter" anchors Dan Patrick and Kenny Mayne will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Saturday's Orioles-Boston game, and ESPN will present a 30-minute tour of the entertainment palace at 12: 30 p.m. Sunday, with host Stuart Scott.

Around the dial

Speaking of Saturday's clash, Fox will dispatch its No. 1 team of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver to call the game (Channel 45, 1 p.m.), going out to 19 percent of the country. Just before that, the kid-oriented "In the Zone" pre-game show will feature a tour of Camden Yards at 12: 30 p.m.

Though the Washington Wizards have yet to get a full NBC national television ride, their WNBA counterparts, the Mystics, will get the national treatment Saturday (Channel 11, 2 p.m.) against their expansion rivals, the Detroit Shock. Friday night's Lifetime game pits the Cleveland Rockers against the Phoenix Mercury at 9, and the Mercury will be host to the Los Angeles Sparks at 9 p.m. Monday on ESPN.

Finally, ESPN2 will carry the annual flight into foolishness, the running of the bulls from Pamplona, Spain, at 1: 30 a.m. Saturday. Telecast producers plan to introduce the six bulls that will attempt to trample the idiots, er, contestants, with head shots and their names, numbers and weights. John Nicholson is host and Kathleen Murphy will serve as, ahem, analyst.

Star power

Baseball fans apparently like to watch slugfests more than pitcher's duels.

The highest-scoring All-Star Game in history, played at the hitters' haven of Coors Field, brought NBC a 13.3 rating/25 share, 13 percent higher than the 11.8/21 last year. It was the highest rating since 1995, when ABC got a 13.9/25.

Each ratings point represents 980,000 homes. The share represents the percentage of televisions in use, tuned to a particular show.

An estimated 38 million people watched at least part of the game, according to NBC research, the highest since 42 million watched the 1994 game -- one month before the players went on strike.

ESPN's live coverage of the Home Run Derby on Monday night was tied for the network's second highest rated non-NFL show in history. ESPN got a 7.7, 35 percent higher than last year's taped show, which got a 5.7. For ESPN, each ratings point represents 740,000 homes.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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