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Baseball's fans are back, but they aren't necessarily the fans Major League Baseball owners knew-and could count on-before the strike. Owners and players created this mess, but baseball's cleanup hitters this season are going to be marketing and promotion experts. And the big league game needs some grand slams from them.

Fans have had plenty of time to think of alternatives to paying the big bucks it takes to get into one of the 28 Major League stadiums. That they still love the game is clear, but they're grumbling about greedy players and owners, and the high price of tickets, hot dogs and a cup of beer.

When we were out among the sandlot crowd this month, we heard a lot of talk about alternatives: Going to high school and college games; planning outings to the nearest minor league park; or spending more time coaching the "next generations" of baseball stars. A disgusted hard-core of former fans was even talking seriously about boycotting TV games.

Smart owners will stick to plans to reduce ticket, food and parking prices. They'll welcome back sponsors like Chevrolet, who were skittish of games with replacement players, and thank those who stuck around during dark strike days, such as Nationwide Insurance, MCI and American Express. But the Target fireworks, Leaf pencil cases and Discovery Zone cooler bags can only go so far. They need some basic baseball human drama, and the promotional wizardry to use it to win back the bummed-out fan.

The Baltimore Orioles, for example, already are working on promotions for when Cal Ripken Jr. breaks Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games. If Ken Griffey Jr. is again on track to challenge the single-season home run record, the Seattle Mariners can parlay that chase into more ticket sales.

So let's play ball! And hope that baseball finds some marketing MVPs, too.

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