COMMENTARY : It May Be Finest Postseason That Nobody Has Ever Seen

NEWSDAY

What the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners proved in the wee small hours of Thursday morning was that baseball's timing remains impeccably bad. Starting Wednesday night, the two teams played an old-fashioned postseason classic whose only drawback was its decidedly modern 1:22 a.m. conclusion. Even in the city that never sleeps, it was a ghastly hour for the sport to reach the new fans it seeks in this autumn of discontent.

Consider that the powers that be already quartered the potential audience by telecasting all four division series games at the same time to different regions of the country. They further reduced the impact by decreeing midweek starts after 8 p.m. (EDT), virtually guaranteeing any epic extra-inning contests would be settled well beyond prime time, if not after midnight. So self-absorbed were the opponents at Yankee Stadium that they pushed the envelope into a sixth hour of competition before the Yankees emerged with a 7-5 victory, playing havoc with newspaper deadlines throughout the East.

"I really thought nothing could be as good as yesterday," said Don Mattingly, reflecting on his postseason debut the previous night, "but then this game came along. It was just a great game, and great for baseball." And not just because the Yankee captain homered and singled twice. Despite the dilution of talent brought about by expansion, despite the financial squabbling between owners and players that wiped out the final chapter of the 1994 season as well as the World Series, the two teams demonstrated that baseball still is unsurpassed in building drama and sustaining it for a long period of time.

Yet, something is wrong when the vast majority of the residents of the most populous time zone in the nation are unable to "read all about it" until Friday, more than 24 hours after the outcome was determined. The main editions of the major journals in New York as well as other East Coast cities went to bed without so much as a final score, let alone any meaningful detail or insightful commentary. That's bad for the newspaper business, but it's even worse for baseball. Such moments make the interested parties more dependent on television, and where does that leave school-age children, the next generation of fans, or even working people whose alarm clocks are set each day at 6 a.m.

Nor was this particular game an isolated incident. Just one day before backup catcher Jim Leyritz homered in the bottom of the 15th inning to end the game in New York, Indians backup catcher Tony Pena homered in the bottom of the 13th inning to provide Cleveland with a theatrical 5-4 decision over Boston. That game, twice delayed by rain and spiced by controversy over the substance of Albert Belle's bat, ended at 2:08 a.m. For those scoring at home, that's two gems in as many nights in this extra round of playoffs whose audience was limited mostly to those souls hardy enough to remain in their seats at the respective ballparks.

A colleague from Boston covering the Yankees-Mariners game on Tuesday night finished his work in plenty of time to watch the most gripping part of the marathon opener between the Indians and Sox from Jacobs Field. Alas, The Baseball Network had predetermined that no one in New York would be sufficiently interested in the telecast. He went to Runyon's, the convivial East Side saloon, in the hope the sports-addicted proprietor had found a way to circumvent baseball's ill-designed plans and pull in the signal. The best they, or anyone else, could do was provide a radio tuned to WFAN, which offered the national CBS broadcast. So he sat there over a drink or two, listening to the action hundreds of miles away. "I felt like I was back in the '50s," he said more in amusement than anger.

Certainly, that was a wonderful era for baseball, particularly in New York. But studies show that the endeavor once hailed as the national pastime has been losing ground in this country, especially among the young. Superior marketing and television policies have siphoned potential fans to other sports. Given the new technology at hand, it's remarkable that baseball continues to step backward into the future.

To their credit, officials recognized the error of their ways even before the inaugural edition of this extra round of playoffs. Barry Frank, who will negotiate baseball's new television contract, said it's the intention of the sport to get an agreement in which each postseason game will be viewed in its entirety next year. That means some day games on the menu, if only on cable. But such changes will be too late for this fall and a postseason that promises to be among the most exciting ever witnessed by insomniacs.

David Cone, the winning pitcher in Game 1, had a fine seat in the dugout for the Yankees' implausible victory the following night. He recalled almost breathlessly the rush of emotions in the 12th inning after Ken Griffey's solo homer had provided the Mariners with their fourth lead of the game. With two outs and two runners on base in the bottom half of the inning, Ruben Sierra hit a long drive over the head of left fielder Alex Diaz. Pinch runner Jorge Posada scored easily as the ball caromed off the wall and swift Bernie Williams appeared likely to bring home the winning run. "We were on the top step of the dugout then, ready to rush out and embrace Bernie," Cone said.

But a stunning relay from Diaz to shortstop Luis Sojo to catcher Chris Widger cut down a sliding Williams at the plate. "Before we went back in the dugout," the pitcher related, "we turned around and looked at the crowd in disbelief." In fact, it took a few seconds for the disappointed Yankees to realize that the game was tied and play was continuing.

That jumble of emotions was reminiscent of the scene in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series of 1986 when the California Angels were poised to dash onto the field in celebration of their first pennant, only to be rebuffed by Dave Henderson's two-out homer, a blow from which they never recovered. Of course, among the reasons that picture is engraved on so many minds is that it occurred in daylight, when viewers were wide awake.

Darryl Strawberry, now a Yankee, and others likened it to Game 6 of the NLCS in the same year. That's the contest in which the Mets rallied in the ninth to force overtime and then had to overcome a couple of last-gasp Houston comebacks before subduing the Astros in 16 innings. It was called by one author the greatest baseball game ever played. Significantly, it happened in daytime so that millions could absorb the action live and millions more could digest it in the morning newspaper.

Perhaps the concept, as old as sunrise, will dawn on Bud Selig and his buddies before it's too late.

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