MAJOR LEAGUE CRISIS? CALL IN A TEAM

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The moment the Major League Baseball Players Association announced an Aug. 12 strike date, Bill Larsen knew it meant good things for the Kane County Cougars.

The phones began ringing almost immediately in the Cougars' suburban Chicago offices. Fans wanted to know whether a strike would also shut down the minor league Cougars, while reporters asked for interviews. And advance ticket sales for the Cougars' 12 remaining home games are double the normal rate.

Business is sprouting down on the farm as the major league ballparks lock their gates for who knows how long. The Cougars are one of the 216 farm teams stepping up to pinch-hit for the big league players that went out on strike last week.

With the plug pulled on one of the most exciting seasons in years, minor league ball is rapidly becoming an alternative for soon to be baseball-starved fans.

"People just want to come out and see a baseball game," said Mr. Larsen, general manager of the independently owned Class A affiliate of the Florida Marlins. "And we're still in business, so I've got to take advantage of the opportunity. It's really just perfect for us, to showcase what we're doing out here with minor league baseball at its best."

Minor league teams are also offering an alternative to media that might otherwise turn up their noses at telecasting such games.

Yesterday, with the strike entering its first weekend, ESPN was scheduled to telecast a Class AA contest between the Memphis Chicks and the Birmingham Barons-the latter featuring a right fielder by the name of Michael Jordan-in place of its regular Sunday night major league contest. ESPN even slotted regular announcers Joe Morgan and Jon Miller for the telecast, and it planned to show another Barons game Aug. 21.

Similarly, Home Team Sports, the cable network that produces and telecasts Baltimore Orioles games, will offer a Class A Carolina League game of the week in place of its Monday Orioles contest.

Cable superstation WTBS last week made plans to fill scheduled Atlanta Braves programming time with at least three of the remaining games of the Richmond Braves, the AAA affiliate that's part of Ted Turner's sports holdings. WTBS is set to broadcast the first Richmond game Aug. 19. "We're going to keep a close eye on it and see if there's national appeal," said Mark Mariani, exec VP-sports sales for Turner Broadcasting System. "We can take up to 22 games if we want."

Minor league teams, especially the 40% not owned by a major league operation, are ready to capitalize on the opportunities a strike might present. With record attendance of 30 million last year, minor league baseball wants to build on the enthusiasm created by movies, media, stars like Mr. Jordan and new teams closer to major league cities.

Just a 2-hour drive from Atlanta, the Chattanooga Lookouts plan print, radio and even flying signs om the Atlanta market to lure Braves fans, said Bill Davidson, VP-general manager for the AA farm team of the Cincinnati Reds.

A number of humorous creative concepts, dreamed up in-house, will be employed. One sports the tagline: "For $5, you can park in the Fulton County Stadium parking lot. Or, for $5, you can sit in the front row." The team is also working with local attractions to create strike packages that lure out-of-towners.

"We don't want a strike, but we're prepared to take advantage of it where we can," said Jim Konecny, assistant general manager of the community-owned Toledo Mud Hens.

The AAA partner of the Detroit Tigers has already seen booming interest from Tigers fans; 30% of its record 285,000 attendance last year were Michiganders, compared with just 10% a couple of years ago.

Mr. Konecny said it's likely the Mud Hens will advertise for the first time in The Plain Dealer to attract Cleveland Indians' fans to the team's upcoming contest with the Indians' minor league team.

Two of Wisconsin's three Class A Midwest League teams said they've already seen increased interest and ticket sales from fans, particularly from Milwaukee.

"Even before the strike, we are seeing more people calling and asking directions to the ballpark from Milwaukee and outlying areas," said Steve Malliet, general manager of the community-owned Appleton Foxes, affiliated with the Seattle Mariners. "People are just sick of it and sick of the whole major league scene. The true fans just want to see baseball."

Likewise, the Cougars' Mr. Larsen took out a few extra ads in the Chicago Tribune to let fans know the Cougars are still in business. Created in-house, the ads promote "America's pastime as it used to be!"

But some minor league executives said they don't see the need to advertise, as long as TV, radio and newspaper reporters play ball and keep their teams in the news. The Colorado Springs Sky Sox, AAA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, are sending a "Strike Relief Pack" to Denver media that includes information on the team and upcoming promotions.

Peg Masterson and Tammy Parker contributed to this story.

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