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Fox is savoring sweet success in starting 5th year with baseball


Of all the successes Fox Sports has had over its six-year history, the sweetest may lie in what it has done with baseball in the past four seasons, which is particularly noteworthy, given the damage wrought by the 1994 strike as prologue.

As its fifth season begins tomorrow, the network is getting solid, if not terrific, ratings, as well as critical acclaim. Fox's baseball package took home Emmys last month for best play-by-play announcer (Joe Buck), best sports series and special, and its pre-game show was named best studio program.

"What we have accomplished over the last four years, in conjunction with what baseball has done for itself, has helped bring this sport back dramatically," said Fox Sports president Ed Goren. "The relationship is very solid, and both the commissioner [Bud Selig] and [Major League Baseball CEO] Paul Beeston have been very clear that their desire is to continue this relationship with Fox for many years."

The proof of that desire may come soon as negotiations for a new broadcast deal move to conclusion. Fox and NBC, which has a postseason contract, have an exclusive negotiating window that runs through June 5.

Fox, which paid $575million for its piece of the package five years ago, is expected to retain its deal. The other three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) are reportedly vying for the October contract, which would give the winner an important promotional launching ground heading into the November sweeps.

The new season brings one major change, as Fox, in partnership with MLB, dusts off the beloved "This Week in Baseball" show (Channel 45, 12:30 p.m. tomorrow). The host will rotate each week; this week's host, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, will tour viewers around Yankee Stadium.

The pre-game show (Channel 45, 1 p.m.) features a report by Keith Olbermann on new ballparks and how their presence has contributed to the spate of home runs. And the Game of the Week has Buck and Tim McCarver at Yankee Stadium for the Boston-New York battle. ESPN has the same two teams at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Corporate synergy

The first yield of Viacom's recent purchase of CBS presented itself yesterday. CBS said it will re-air in July four fights originally telecast in June by Showtime, another Viacom family member.

The fights, involving heavyweights Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, David Tua and Andrew Golota, will air first on Showtime or its pay-per-view arm, then in three one-hour edited sessions on CBS, marking the first time in three years that boxing has appeared on the network.

Roberts' big move

NBC has pulled off a major coup, nabbing talented reporter Jimmy Roberts from ESPN to cover golf, tennis, horse racing and the Olympics.

Roberts, 43, a 1979 Maryland graduate, has won 13 Emmys, including one for his 1993 story on boxer Riddick Bowe's humanitarian tour of Africa. Roberts' first NBC appearance will come June 11 on the network's U.S. Open golf preview show, and he will be the lead Olympic features reporter this fall.

Preakness ratings game

Beleaguered Channel 2 got a big boost from its pre-Preakness coverage and race telecast. The station's 8 1/2 -hour pre-race telecast did a 5.4 rating, a 40 percent boost from last year's 3.2; ABC's coverage locally did a 15.7, up 28 percent from last year's 11.3.

Nationally, the pre-race buildup for Fusaichi Pegasus and bad weather across the country helped ABC post a 4.6 rating, a 21-percent boost from last year's 3.8.

Rush Limbaugh?

By all accounts, African-American viewers are among the most loyal to "Monday Night Football," making it their most watched weekly program from September to January, with a 16.1 rating, ahead of NBA basketball (13.1), "60 Minutes" (12.3) and "Touched By An Angel" (12.1).

You would have to wonder, then, why ABC would even consider placing Rush Limbaugh, a man many blacks consider anathema, in the "MNF" booth, and why the normally staid network hasn't nipped Limbaugh's bid to replace Boomer Esiason in the bud.

Even after Limbaugh's supposed "audition" with Al Michaels last week, ABC, whose radio division produces his daily talk show, can't possibly be serious about Limbaugh, who, besides a stint in the Kansas City Royals' front office in the 1970s, has no sports experience whatsoever.

Limbaugh apologists suggest that he could be an entertaining presence a la Howard Cosell, but the comparison is an insult to the memory of Cosell, who was a solid sports reporter before he came to the "MNF" booth.

There are plenty of qualified candidates to join Michaels. Rush Limbaugh isn't one of them.

Around the dial

One of the busiest sports weekends is highlighted locally by a feature on Orioles announcer Chuck Thompson and his battle against macular degeneration on CNN's "The Sporting Life" with host Jim Huber at 10 p.m. Sunday.

Sunday offers something for everyone in the racing mind-set. The 84th running of the Indianapolis 500, which features the return of two-time champion Al Unser Jr., also has the first-time presence of two women in the starting grid, Lyn St. James and 19-year-old Sarah Fisher. The telecast opens at 11 a.m., to be seen locally on Channel 2. On Sunday evening, TBS will cover NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte, N.C., with a pre-race show at 5:35.

And, the king of television trash sports, the Superstars, returns to ABC (Channel 2) this weekend with the New York Giants' Jason Sehorn going for his third straight title. Brent Musburger and Lynn Swann preside at 4:30 tomorrow and 3:30 Sunday.

Looking ahead to next week, the WNBA opens its fourth season with a matchup between the three-time champion Houston Comets and the New York Liberty on Monday (Channel 11, 3 p.m.).

USA opens its coverage of the French Open on Monday at 10a.m., with Ted Robinson, Tracy Austin and John McEnroe on the call, and ESPN carries the opening game of the Stanley Cup Finals on Tuesday with a pre-game show at 7:30 p.m.

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