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Baseball boss wants TV time

NBC's prime Atlanta Olympics loves are gymnastics, track, swimming and gold-farce basketball. A touch of tennis. A flip of softball. Plus well-sprinkled Georgia grains of beach volleyball, which the network may soon promo as "Baywatch in the Boondocks."

In an overt, ravenous-for-ratings scheme, NBC made a corporate decision to take male viewers for granted. Peacock's game plan was, just throw the guys an occasional droplet of competitive sweat. Blend in some joyous medalists and weeping losers.

Fellows will stay tuned.

Job One for NBC, which by now means "Network of Bob Costas," is hooking women viewers. Grunt, belch and burp all you want, my boys. It's good Olympics business. Just check the booming Nielsens.

Still, among Atlanta's multitudinous and mostly overshadowed Olympic cast, there are manly traditionalists who are feeling exposure-cheated. Lots of leathery whining at the boxing venue. But nobody is more vocal than Skip Bertman, the U.S. baseball boss.

"Our game doesn't fit in NBC's box," said the coach from national collegiate champion Louisiana State. "Give them cute little girls doing rhythmic gymnastics in an 8-minute program. Give them eight swimmers in a 90-second race. Give them volleyball spikers in swimsuits. NBC sees those as perfect theatrical fits.

"Baseball is getting one major shot in the first 10 days of the Olympics, when our American kids play gold-medal favorite Cuba on Sunday," said the crusty, eloquent Bertman. "I guess that one's politically sexy enough to convince NBC to temporarily pull away from somersaulters, backstrokers and Dream Teamers."

Shhh, don't tell anybody, but U.S. baseball is drawing the biggest crowds of these Olympics. Tonight, for Japan-United States, it's a 55,000 sellout. Same for American-Cuban hardball on Sunday. By then, for four games, the Bertman Yanks will be averaging 49,000.

Cuba has won 137 consecutive games Cuba has won 137 consecutive games in international competition, dating to the mid-1980s. "Their system has been remarkable," said the U.S. coach. "Best team in the world beyond our American major leagues.

"It's a baseball-crazy country. From among Cuban boys in their mid-teens, the finest prospects are identified. Then, from age 17, they go into a pyramid structure that decides Castro's very best 30 players. His national team is expected to win Olympics and other global amateur championships until they become too old and/or not good enough."

Fidel Castro has no higher athletic goal than Olympic baseball gold. In Atlanta, the toughest competition is Bertman's bunch of American collegiate talents. Four years ago at the Barcelona Olympics, the gold-medal-winning Cubans dominated with a 9-0 record, a .407 batting average and a 1.27 team earned run average.

But now Cuba's pitching isn't so deep. In their first two Olympic victories, the Cubans were bruised for seven runs against Japan and outclassed Australia scored eight. Team ERA is currently a Castro-embarrassing 5.97.

Three starters have recently fled Fidel in search of major-league baseball fortunes. Last year, Livan Hernandez (Florida Marlins) and Osvaldo Fernandez (San Francisco Giants) signed pro contracts. A few days ago, Rolando Arrojo skipped out as Cuba played exhibitions en route to Atlanta.

"Their pitching depth may've been hurt," Bertman said, "but don't even think of downgrading the Cubans as long as they have Pedro Luis Lazo. He's just 23 years old and unquestionably more imposing than any of the three defectors. Big-league franchises would be happy to load Lazo's wagon with millions of dollars to get his right arm."

Lazo has a 95-mile-an-hour zip. "I first saw him a year ago and Lazo's fastball wowed me," Bertman said. "But since then, the kid has learned a split-finger pitch. He has devastating stuff."

From the American perspective, we wonder how any Cuban ballplayer has to think longer than a Castro cigar puff before defecting for major-league millions. But the emotional considerations can be immense. Some worship Fidel. They have family in Cuba. But if MLB scouts can sell them on jumping, the act of defecting is relatively simple.

"It's no longer heavy cloak-and-dagger stuff," said Bertman. "Cuban baseball players who defect don't have to swim shark-infested waters or crawl on their bellies beneath machine-gun fire. They can simply go to curbside and hop into a Lincoln Continental."

Bertman says the Olympics are a lock to include baseball pros by 2000 when the Summer Games go to Sydney, Australia. "But I wouldn't expect American big-leaguers to become immediately involved," said the Miami native. "But it will probably entice Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico back into Olympic baseball.

"Cuba has led the fight against admitting baseball pros. Castro will lose this battle against an International Olympic Committee that is mesmerized by financial possibilities connected to the Dream Team concept. It was basketball first, with hockey coming up in 1998, so baseball is a natural next step. I don't like it, but I'm obviously not as smart as (IOC president) Juan Antonio Samaranch.

"Castro has a plan in place. When baseball pros are invited to Olympics, the Cuban premier will then allow his guys to go to Japan and play ball for money, with an agreement that they return for Olympics and other top international competitions as members of Cuba's national team."

Skip Bertman is a savvy soul. His boyish Yanks have a chance against the grizzled, heretofore-unbeatable Cubans. A tougher Atlanta challenge for the LSU fellow may be selling NBC that Olympic baseball isn't an all-guy thing and is worth more than cameo TV time.