Postseason Helps Woo Wary Fans BASEBALL PLAYOFFS

Article excerpt

IS baseball back? Or has it followed what was arguably its worst year ever with its second-worst year ever?

On paper, some of the figures look more grim than a sub-.200 batting average. For instance:

*Average attendance at big-league games during the regular season dropped 20 percent, from 31,612 to 25,257 fans.

*An Associated Press poll released Oct. 1 found that 6 out of 10 people say they are less interested in baseball now than in August 1994, when a seven-month labor strike began.

*According to some sources, local TV ratings are down.

But beyond pure data, individuals who consider themselves "baseball people" indicate that, at best, the major leagues are still piecing together their shattered public support.

Sports columnist Tom Weir of USA Today says baseball remains an unhappy game.

Paul White, editor of Baseball Weekly, draws a similar conclusion: "There's something different about this season," he says. "It hasn't quite felt comfortable. It hasn't quite felt right." He wonders if it's "a temporary thing," something that an exciting playoff season - in which Cleveland, Seattle, Atlanta, and Cincinnati have advanced to the League Championships - might rectify.

Even a year after a bitter strike wiped out the 1994 playoffs and World Series, people are still "exorcising their own demons as to how they will respond" to professional baseball, says Bill Sutton, an associate professor of sports studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Professor Sutton says that the loss of the '94 World Series was a turnoff to many fans, a breach of almost unbridgeable proportions. "Some people have pointed out to me," he says, "that the World Series was held throughout World War I and World War II. War couldn't stop it. The only thing that stopped it was baseball itself. That's significant."

Now the big leagues are trying to make amends with various fan-oriented initiatives and by playing until a new champion is crowned. The latter activity has produced some riveting theater.

The Yankees, for example, won a 15-inning thriller from Seattle in their series opener, only to lose the decisive fifth game of the first round when Ken Griffey Jr. scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning. Cleveland opened the playoffs with a 13-inning victory over Boston, then swept the Red Sox in three games.

Although there was some unevenness in the first round, a few were decided by one run or late-game heroics before capacity crowds. The tension could increase tonight as the best-of-seven league championship series begin with Cincinnati hosting Atlanta and Seattle hosting Cleveland. …