Baseball must change tune or fans will keep turning off

October 23, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

CLEVELAND -- The fans are turned off. That's the problem, and major-league baseball can't deny it any longer.

The games are too long. The games end too late. The World Series is getting buried, and not just by snow.

Baseball people are turned off, too.

Pat Gillick, perhaps the game's most gifted general manager, has said he plans to retire after his Orioles' contract expires at the end of next season.

Why?

Because he's disgusted with '90s baseball.

"I don't want to keep harping on it. I said it, and I don't want to say it again," Gillick said yesterday. "Hopefully, there's going to be some stuff that's going to be addressed."

Such as?

"I could go down the list," Gillick said. "In regard to this particular series, I think it's ridiculous we're not going to have afternoon games. If there's a Saturday and Sunday, at least one of those games should be in the daytime.

"And if [the networks] are concerned about ratings being so damn low, why don't they have day games during the week? If they're so upset about the ratings driving their prime-time shows off the air, why not float a trial balloon and play in the daytime? Be imaginative. Have some different ideas."

Different ideas? Five years ago, the final game of the World Series ended at 12: 51 a.m. EDT. Major-league officials were so alarmed, they said they would examine ways to shorten games.

Nothing changed, of course.

Tuesday night's disaster ended at 12: 36 a.m EDT. Unlike Game 6 in '92, it didn't last 11 innings. And unlike Game 6 in '92, it was, by everyone's account, one of the ugliest games in World Series history.

"The unfinished symphony had a better chance of finishing before that game," acting commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday as snow fell on Jacobs Field before Game 4 of the World Series.

Last night's game was almost an hour shorter, yet Cleveland's 10-3 victory still qualified as a yawner. The series is tied, two games each, but for whatever reason, it has lacked for drama.

"To this point, we haven't had a classic game," Gillick said. "I don't think there were any that kept you on the edge of your seat, sent goosebumps up your spine. The only goosebumps I got were sitting there [in the stands Tuesday]."

The sub-freezing temperatures contributed to the sloppy play in Game 3, but so did the usual staples of '90s baseball -- awful pitching, batters stepping out of the box, managers strolling to the mound.

Last night was even colder -- 38 degrees at 11 p.m., 15 with the wind-chill factor. But other World Series games were played in cold. And lest anyone forget, Game 1 of the '79 World Series in Baltimore was postponed by snow.

The weather is but one issue.

The tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Fans watch television indoors, and still the Series is a ratings disaster. Selig correctly noted that the ratings for all sports are down, but is anyone outside of the two competing cities buzzing about baseball's showcase event?

"The sport keeps putting Band-Aids on its problems," Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone said. "This game needs some surgery. It doesn't need a Band-Aid."

Selig, naturally, wouldn't go that far, but he said he favored a return to a 154-game schedule. He said the pace of the games should be quickened. And he said it was "folly" to play the World Series at a neutral site.

All that might be good news if Selig had any control over where the game was headed. But he's so powerless, he can't even implement his bad ideas, like radical realignment.

Indeed, Selig even said he was helpless to respond to the disgraceful "four-and-out" World Series death wish by NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer.

"Other than shooting him," Selig cracked, "I don't know what I should have done."

He never knows.

And his sport never moves.

The DH? "It's a subject to discuss," Selig said.

The strike zone? "That's a discussion we will have in November."

A fairer playoff format? "We need to rethink that quickly for next year."

Last night's game ended at 11: 37 p.m. EDT. Selig said he is willing to take a ratings hit to start games an hour earlier, but for obvious reasons, the networks don't like that idea.

Afternoon starts?

"We put quite a few day games on during the playoffs, and the ratings were terrible," Selig said. "We had Atlanta and the Marlins on a Sunday afternoon. You talk about disappointing ratings. I was stunned. The ratings were so abysmal, it's hard to convince people to keep doing that."

So, if you can't start night games earlier, and can't play in the afternoon, then you have to make the games as appealing as possible. It helps when the Braves are playing the Yankees. But once upon a time, the Series stood on its own.

And yet, even with all that, none of baseball's problems is insurmountable, not when the industry is thriving in a handful of cities, not when the game itself is still compelling, especially in October.

Take the cold-weather issue. The obvious solution is to start the regular season earlier and play a 154-game schedule, enabling the postseason to end by mid-October.

Will it happen?

Of course not.

"Change in this business is very, very difficult, even when to me it makes all the common sense in the world," Selig said.

So, baseball gets what it deserves.

Alienated fans. Alienated executives.

People turning off their TVs. People turning off the sport.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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