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THE 1997 WORLD SERIES // MUST-FLEE TV // Nobody's watching these not-ready-for-prime-time players

Before he was made to recant and write on the blackboard a hundred times "I WILL NEVER SAY WHAT I'M REALLY THINKING AGAIN," NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer made this remark about the 1997 World Series.

"We're looking for four and out," he said. "Either way, the faster it's over with, the better it is."

Ohlmeyer went on to explain that it isn't that he doesn't like baseball; it's just that the two teams in the Series, the Cleveland Indians and Florida Marlins, aren't in Top 10 markets and don't have national followings. That, of course, translates to lousy ratings.

Ohlmeyer also said the Series was going to interrupt NBC's entertainment schedule, including its top-rated Thursday night lineup of Seinfeld and E.R. The same thing happened last year, when Ohlmeyer said the baseball playoffs were "totally disruptive to our schedule. We were up 10 percent two weeks into the season last year before baseball." And after low-rated early-round playoff action kicked in, "we never recovered."

If Ohlmeyer is guilty of anything, it's practicing honesty without a license.

He was right about the incredible shrinking viewership. Based on overnight ratings for the first three games, the 1997 World Series could become one of the least-watched Series since the so-called fall classic moved to prime time. Game 1 was not only the lowest rated Series game broadcast in history, it was 19 percent lower than the previous worst.

NBC went out and spent millions to broadcast the Series, yet hardly anyone is coming to the party. Worse, when viewers tune in to see Jerry Seinfeld and they get Gary Sheffield, they may not come back. (Not that there's anything wrong with Sheffield, but the only thing amusing about him is his house in St. Petersburg, which looks like an unsolved Rubik's cube.)

What Ohlmeyer may have forced us to do is look at the bigger picture, which is rectangular and receives 82 channels.

Part of the reason so few people are watching the Series is because of the teams involved. To paraphrase the old line about a terrible player, these guys can't hit, but they also can't throw. Florida doesn't have a .300 hitter or a 25-homer hitter, and then there are the Indians, whose pitchers are as ordinary as the hitters they're facing.

There is also an image problem. The Marlins have no tradition to speak of, and they're owned by Vlad the Complainer. The team wasn't drawing enough fans to suit Wayne Huizenga? He huffed and puffed and put the club on the market.

Conversely, the Indians are steeped in history, as evidenced by the ridiculously outdated Chief Wahoo logo they wear on their caps. But unless you live in northern Ohio, or you're doing research into racial stereotypes, do you really care?

No, what you'll do is watch a couple of innings, go to bed, and then read the newspaper or watch Sportscenter to find out what happened.

The networks can't pick (not yet, anyway) which teams make it to the Series, but what they can do is change the time they televise the games.

There was something romantic, even a little dangerous, about day baseball. It meant you had to smuggle a radio into social studies class, or sneak out of work early. Of course, that was when there was something called player loyalty, and not nearly as many teams as there are now, and no such thing as cable TV, the Internet and VCRs.

But when a game ends at 11:30 p.m. or later, as many playoff games do, how many people will still be watching? Kids have school. Parents have work.

What the dismal ratings prove is something network executives may not want to admit: Putting baseball on TV during prime time excludes, not includes, viewers.

Why not start the games at 3 or 4 p.m. Eastern time? If that's a problem for people on the West Coast, start a little later. If the Super Bowl can start at 6 p.m., why can't the World Series?

If the networks really want to ensure high ratings, the games should be played between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. so as not to violate one of the cardinal rules of human nature: If you want to get people to watch something on TV, put it on the air when they're supposed to be doing something else.

Works every time.

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