Batter wanted for viewing needsWith baseball season again...

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April 02, 1993|By RAY FRAGER

Batter wanted for viewing needs

With baseball season again upon us, it is wise to remember that need and want aren't the same thing. (Why do I suddenly feel like the old master lecturing Grasshopper on "Kung Fu"? "As quickly as you can, snatch the pebble from my hand . . .")

Starting Monday, you want to see baseball every night. You want to be able to choose from among three or four games. Hey, so do I. But do we need all of those games on television? Does baseball need all of those games on television?

Let's use an analogy (don't worry, it won't hurt much). Let's say you take your 4-year-old to the circus. He wants the dragon-fire's-breath sword with the blinking light. He wants it so much that he's not paying attention to the circus. He finally gets the sword and pays attention to it for a while. In the meantime, he needed to pay attention to the three rings, because the circus only comes around once a year and, off this performance, the kid is lucky if he'll get to another one before his bar mitzvah.

So, you see, wants and needs can work at cross purposes. You don't see? OK, forget the circus story.

Anyway, when ESPN started telecasting major-league games in 1990, another tier of baseball was added to TV's expanding universe (geez, now I feel like Carl Sagan). Viewers with cable -- you non-cabled people are sort of like the kids whose dads wouldn't spring for the swords at the circus -- can have the Orioles on Home Team Sports, ESPN's six-games-a-week schedule, the Braves on TBS, Mets on WWOR or Cubs on WGN (only two of those last three superstations per cable system, though) -- in addition to Orioles telecasts on Channel 2 and the limited weekend schedule on CBS.

You could argue that the true fan never tires of making trips to the baseball salad bar. (And if baseball is a salad bar, you could argue that the San Diego Padres are the parsnips.) But that fan doesn't need to keep making so many trips; he just wants to. In fact, if the salad bar were available less often, he might enjoy his meals there even more.

But let's leave the salad bar metaphor behind -- would you grab a couple of gherkins for me, though? -- and consider the implications on baseball's new TV contract.

Longtime observers, those close to the situation, industry experts and others who fall into similarly imprecise categories that reporters love to use are saying that the next baseball deal, to be negotiated this year and start in 1994, appears headed for a split contract with two major networks, perhaps like the one shared by ABC and NBC before CBS took over in 1990.

Though this might mean the return of a true game of the week on over-the-air TV -- and, more ominously, Brent Musburger on baseball -- the cable end of the deal could be reduced. If ESPN retains baseball, it seems likely to cut back on telecasts.

With baseball's financial health just as popular a topic as who will win the pennants and with the expectation that a new TV deal will yield far less that the combined CBS-ESPN contract of $1.46 billion over four years, the game needs to take steps in another direction. We might not want fewer games, but one has to look no further than the success of the NBA's reduced schedule on NBC to see how less can be more.

And though he probably wasn't the right person to be telling us this, Mick Jagger once did sing that you can't always get what you want, but, if you try sometimes -- you just might find, you just might find -- that you get what you need.

Miller and Berman's view

Cutbacks aside, ESPN won't need to fill time with tractor pulls this season. And among those calling games will be Jon Miller, voice of the Orioles, on Sunday nights, and Chris Berman on Wednesdays.

"The Sunday night telecast I would put up with any telecast done in baseball," Miller said. "The replays, isolation coverage is stuff that you expect in postseason."

"We know that anyone tuning in knows baseball," Berman said. "I'm not sure any of the other networks could do what we've done."

Oh, I don't know. I'd bet QVC could give it a shot.

Berman said that fans have grown accustomed to seeing games on ESPN, not that they necessarily build their evenings around them.

"Baseball is a subliminal watch," he said. "You wouldn't look at the paper on a particular day and say, 'Forget going out. We're staying home to watch a game.' "

Channel 2's crew

Just about every one of your favorites from WMAR -- smile when you say Newschannel 2, podner -- will be wielding a microphone at Opening Day. The telecast begins on Channel 2 at noon, a little more than 1 1/2 hours before the first pitch. Jon Miller and Brooks Robinson call the game. Expect President Clinton to drop by the television booth. No word on whether he'll bring his sax.

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