BASIC BASEBALL BECKONS

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Baseball is back and, given the horrendous winter most of us are now saying good riddance to, it's not a moment too soon.

Sure, the Olympic Games are terrific. Football, basketball and hockey-they're wonderful sports, all. But baseball-well, there's nothing to compare with America's national game.

Yes, every year-for the past 40 years or so-we get to read and hear about baseball's imminent demise. Not enough action, goes the refrain. Games take too long. No longer a part of modern-day life.

Still, baseball's nuances, surprises, skills and subtleties renew the game's appeal, as enthusiastic fans will loudly attest in Atlanta and Toronto, or in the new major league markets, Colorado and Florida.

The media player to watch this year is the Baseball Network, in its rookie season as an innovative joint venture of NBC, ABC and Major League Baseball. It's trying to bring in some big-time advertisers for the network TV lineup that begins with All-Star Game coverage on July 12 and ends with the October World Series.

What's apparent so far is that advertisers have become used to the imaginative, glitzy, talent-tailored marketing packages the National Football League and National Basketball Association can whip together, and so they expect baseball to come up with comparable packages. This is unrealistic.

Added promotional value is in limited supply in baseball. There's the All-Star balloting, soon to be Texaco's program. And then there's Gatorade with its big deal-coolers in the dugouts.

At the moment, baseball, with its tunnel-vision owners in control, offers nothing like football's perennial youth-oriented "Punt, Pass & Kick" promotion, or basketball's superstar endorsers-unless it can exploit Michael Jordan's ability to sell tickets and products.

Until such time as more tie-ins can be developed, baseball's strength remains its enduring fan interest in a marvelous sport the whole family can enjoy.

Advertisers would do well to catch baseball fever and enjoy being part of the game's traditions. And the Baseball Network deserves to bring in a solid lineup of advertisers because of the game's intrinsic appeal.

Baseball is still one sport that doesn't depend on modern marketing's artificially created nationwide promotional add-ons.

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