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As Major League Baseball gets ready to proclaim "Let's play ball" to its fans, minor league officials are wondering when anyone ever stopped.

Farm teams within driving distance of strike-shuttered major league ballparks got an end-of-the-season boost last year. Now, the striking players are back and their delayed season begins this week. But minor league teams have been playing since early April, confident they can build on the momentum they believe was already developing before the strike.

That optimism comes from all corners of the country. For example:

In San Jose, Calif., less than an hour from major league ballyards in San Francisco and Oakland, attendance for the Class A Giants was averaging 1,500 before the strike, said Steve Fields, director of promotions. "After that, with nine home games left, we averaged 3,000." On Opening Night 1995, the team drew 4,000.

In suburban Chicago, the Kane County Cougars, Class A affiliate of the Florida Marlins, saw attendance rise 18% to 417,000 in 1994. The last game topped 10,000, said General Manager Bill Larsen, at a park whose capacity is supposed to be 5,800. Mr. Larsen believes attendance will be up 30% to 40% this season.

Attendance for the Toledo Mud Hens, the AAA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, was up 7% to 305,000 last season. "The strike definitely did help," said Assistant General Manager Jim Konecny. ".*.*. We were able to introduce fans in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Detroit." This year, he believes a realistic expectation is 330,000.

The Class A Macon Braves "drew 83,000 last year with problems not related to baseball," said Jim Tessmer, sales and marketing director. The team had to cancel eight home games due to flooding in Georgia and three were rained out. Mr. Tessmer added: "I think we will go over the 100,000 mark this year."

Three AA Eastern League cities-Reading, Wilmington and Trenton, all 90 miles from Philadelphia-saw a surge in attendance when the strike hit. "The [Philadelphia] Phillies' recent successes, and not the strike, helped us .... ," contended Todd Parnell, director of sales and marketing for the Reading Phillies. In 1993, the year the Phils won the National League pennant, Reading set an attendance record of 313,000. Mr. Parnell said Reading should draw 370,000 this year.

The Birmingham Barons, AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, drew a record 468,000 in 1994, up nearly 7%. In addition to the strike, the team had an unusually appealing outfielder on its roster (see related story at right).

The 214 teams in the minors' National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues were on a pace for 33 million in overall attendance when the major leaguers struck. They finished the season up 13% to 34 million fans.

"We had a slight bump in attendance from Aug. 12 on," said a spokesman for the association. "But because each team had only about eight to 10 home games remaining, we decided to downplay our gain."

Minor league officials say they have made their 1995 plans for promotions and attendance projections without regard to who took the field for the majors.

"We didn't take the majors into consideration when we were planning for this season because we don't have any control over that," said the Reading Phillies' Mr. Parnell. "We are ready to host large crowds." The club has 62 promotions planned.

Marketing is now on the minds of both major and minor league officials. MLB has been talking about running an integrated marketing campaign, themed "Let's play ball," to win back fans.

Ron Myers, director of marketing for the minor league association, said Office Depot was active with 60 minor league clubs last year and has signed on with another dozen for 1995. He added that Reckitt & Colman's French's mustard is a new sponsor and is involved in a promotion with 21 clubs and also is working on a Little League Family of the Year promotion in 50 states alongside the minor league clubs in those areas. Food Lion is another new minor league sponsor with an MVP Rookie of the Year and an MVP Customer promotion in 38 cities.

"We also are working on a promotion with the Baseball Network [the MLB-ABC-NBC joint venture]," Mr. Myers said

In addition, the association is nearing a new concept whereby one sponsor would work with all minor league clubs such as Campbell Soup Co. did two years ago.

There are signs that major league teams, trying to win back disenchanted fans, are borrowing some of the down-home tactics that are the stock in trade of minor league clubs. For example, at the San Francisco Giants' Candlestick Park, fans will get to sit in the radio announcers' booth and take batting practice, and kids will be able to run the bases.

The Mud Hens "even had a few major league clubs call in October and November, and say, in layman's terms, what do you do to get the fans back because you don't promote ballplayers and their names? How do you go about that?" Mr. Konecny said. "A lot of what I've told them is to put things on the field."

"The Cubs are going to have family days, autograph days," the Cougars' Mr. Larsen noted. "Wayne Huizenga [Marlins owner and former Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. chairman-CEO] was here last year from the Marlins. He liked the pork chops so much he asked where he could get them. He knows you've got to entertain people even on the major league level."

The fan interest transcends sports superstars and purists' box scores.

"People want to have a good time," Mr. Larsen said. "Not everybody is reading the sports page religiously or is in rotisserie leagues .... We get a lot of grandmothers out here."

Dan Lippe contributed to this story.

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