Baseball Cancels Opener in Japan

Times Staff Writer

Major League Baseball's season opener in Japan is off; the NCAA basketball tournaments are on.

The conflicting announcements came Tuesday, by Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who cited the "tense world situation" as his reason to cancel, and by NCAA President Myles Brand, who expressed his wish that "the American way of life goes on as scheduled" as reason to play.

Brand said his decision to play came after he received safety assurances and encouragement to maintain normal domestic activity from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

"[Monday] night's announcement by President Bush heightened our concerns, and our thoughts and prayers go to the men and women in the desert and elsewhere defending our freedom," Brand said. "We are also concerned that the American way of life goes on as scheduled."

Thus, March Madness, which opened with a play-in game Tuesday night, will begin in earnest Thursday with 16 men's games. The 64-team women's tournament starts Saturday.

The shelving of baseball's regular-season-opening two-game series between the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners, which was to begin next Tuesday at Tokyo Dome, turns the Angels' March 30 home game against the Texas Rangers into baseball's regular-season opener.

"Given the uncertainty that now exists throughout the world, we believe the safest course of action for the players involved and the many staff personnel who must work the games is to reschedule the opening series," Selig said. "It would be unfair and terribly unsettling for them to be half a world away -- away from their families -- at this critical juncture."

The A's-Mariners' games have been rescheduled as Oakland home dates on April 3 and June 30. Both teams had been scheduled to depart their spring training homes in Arizona and head to Japan today. The trip would have marked the returns of three Mariners -- former Japanese League stars Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki and Japan native Shigetoshi Hasegawa.

"This is the prudent course of action," said Don Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn.

Baseball officials said the Cactus League schedule will be modified to adapt to the Mariners' and A's extended stay in Arizona. Derrick Hall, the Dodgers' senior vice president, said there is no indication remaining exhibition or regular-season games will be postponed or canceled.

"I can definitely understand the decision [to reschedule the games]," said Paul Lo Duca, the Dodger player representative. "You have some guys who still wanted to go, and some guys who didn't want to, and there are obviously reasons to be concerned. We just came back from Mexico and it was fine with security, everything went really well and we didn't have any problems, but we weren't traveling when there was a war going on.

"I know they [were] talking about [postponing] the NCAA tournament because of everything, but I don't think that's the right thing to do. I think that's what they want us to do; stop our daily lives here and have everyone staying at home, watching CNN and getting depressed about everything. And the thing is, nobody knows how long this is going to go on ... we can't stop living our lives or they kind of win."

Had the NCAA postponed first- and second-round games, it would have complicated an already uncertain television broadcast schedule and created difficulties regarding travel, hotels and arena usage.

Beyond that, coordination appeared to be lacking. Officials at West regional men's sites in Spokane, Wash., and Salt Lake City said they had not been told to reconstruct their schedule in the event the first two rounds were delayed.

Before Brand's statement, Mike Daniels, assistant commissioner of the Big West Conference, host of the West regional semifinals and final at the Arrowhead Pond, said, "We've heard nothing at all from the NCAA about a contingency plan. We're going forward as planned and not considering any delay until we're told we need to."

Said Brand: "The logistics would have been complicated, but they were by far not the determining factor. The overwhelming sentiment was we were not going to let a tyrant decide how we'll live our lives. We know of no reason not to go forward with games.

"Extraordinary things, totally unforeseen events, may still happen, but we cannot deal with those hypotheticals now."

CBS, which is negotiating to move men's tournament games to ESPN should war coverage take precedence this week, canceled a conference call with reporters Tuesday because CBS Sports President Sean McManus was not available. Spokeswoman LeslieAnn Wade said he was "involved in round-the-clock discussions regarding our contingency plans." This is the first year of the NCAA's $6-billion, 11-year contract with CBS.

A day after President Bush presented Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein an ultimatum to leave the country within 48 hours or face war, networks worked to solidify their backup plans should news coverage preempt scheduled sports programming.

NBC will shift coverage of this weekend's Bay Hill Invitational golf tournament, with Tiger Woods trying for a record-tying fourth consecutive victory, to its CNBC cable network, NBC spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard said.

The final two rounds of the tournament will air on CNBC Saturday and Sunday afternoons if NBC is devoting coverage to the war. If it is carried by CNBC, it would serve as a lead-in to the Toshiba Senior Classic at Newport Beach Country Club, which CNBC is televising the same days.

Switching the golf tournament could cost NBC viewers. CNBC is available in 84 million U.S. households, about 23 million fewer than NBC, the most-watched U.S. network.

NBC's regional coverage of three Arena Football League games on Sunday hasn't been decided.

ABC, which has an NHL game scheduled for Saturday at noon and the Lakers at San Antonio on Sunday at 10 a.m., earlier said it would move the games to ESPN if necessary. Those games would get priority over CBS' NCAA tournament coverage if there are conflicts.

With 10 games scheduled tonight, three on Thursday and 11 on Friday, the NBA is subject to hour-by-hour decision-making as war events develop.

"We'll be in touch with the proper agencies to determine our schedule," NBA spokesman Tim Frank said. "Until we have an idea what direction this thing is going, it's up in the air."

Because of beefed-up security measures it did not detail, the NBA is encouraging fans to arrive early for games. The Lakers play Thursday at Sacramento.

"It's a great diversion, or an entertainment," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. "Hopefully, an entertainment. There's a time when people can drop some concern and care. It's very sobering to think about going to war, and sometimes sports is a great relief."

Said Laker Mark Madsen: "Our hearts will be with the servicemen."

NASCAR announced Tuesday it will maintain its schedule.

A spokesman for the World Figure Skating Championships, to be held in Washington from Monday through March 30, said there have been no war-related cancellations among the 104 skaters from 41 countries. And Augusta National Golf Club reported no change to the Masters schedule.

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CONTINGENCY PLANS

How various sports in the U.S. are preparing for a war in Iraq:

BASEBALL

Canceled March 25-26 season-opening series in Tokyo between the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners. The games were rescheduled at Oakland, April 3 and June 30.

NCAA

Will proceed with men's and women's basketball tournaments, which start this week. War coverage could prompt CBS, entering a $6-billion, 11-year contract to broadcast the tournament, to shift some coverage to ESPN and other cable networks.

GOLF

CNBC will take over weekend coverage of the Bay Hill Invitational if NBC News preempts sporting events. CNBC is available in 84 million U.S. households, about 23 million fewer than NBC.

NBA

No plans to interrupt schedule, with 10 games tonight -- including the Clippers at home against Denver -- three on Thursday and 11 more Friday. The Lakers are at Sacramento on Thursday. If war coverage conflicts, ABC's telecast of Sunday's Lakers-San Antonio game would move to ESPN -- and preempt NCAA tournament coverage.

NHL

No plans to postpone games. The Ducks play at Chicago tonight and at St. Louis on Thursday. The Kings next play Tampa Bay on Thursday at Staples Center. ABC's telecast of a game Saturday could move to ESPN if war coverage takes precedence.

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Times staff writers Jason Reid, Helene Elliott, Tim Brown, Bill Shaikin and Larry Stewart contributed to this report.

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