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Printouts of Fall

WE'RE always struck by how different the rhythm of baseball is in the fall. The game's inner momentum invites a leisureliness designed for a hot summer night, when there's always the possibility of another evening, another inning. But in late fall, as fans in Toronto, Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia have been reminded, there may be no tomorrow - until the following year.

Suddenly, ``seriousness'' is the watchword for baseball. Managerial clipboards are turned in for computer printouts of profit-and-loss statements and team statistics. Accounts are closed - in some cases for players and managers; haggling for new stadiums and more-lavish contracts gets underway.

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Major League baseball can rightfully take pride in its accomplishments. Attendance is up for many clubs, spurred by interest in expansion teams in Colorado and Florida. Baseball greats Carlton Fisk, Nolan Ryan, and George Brett retired this year, leaving behind outstanding career records. The New York Mets were humbled but avoided being forced into the minor leagues. The lineups more and more resemble the racial and ethnic mix of North America, although further effort is needed.

And the game is shorter: down a minute in both leagues, although games still run close to three hours.

Still, challenges linger. Smaller market teams struggle financially to compete with media moneymakers such as Toronto and New York. Is dollar revenue-sharing really impossible? Next year will see a new tier of playoffs, as leagues split into three divisions. Is a Thanksgiving Day game around the corner?

More games wind up on cable TV at the expense of fans who can't afford cable, or for whom it is not available. And then there's George Steinbrenner: Yes, George gave freer reign to his managerial crew in 1993, enabling the New York Yankees to reach second place in their division. But Mr. Steinbrenner talks about a new and improved Yankee Stadium. The Village Voice newspaper says a move to New Jersey may be imminent and runs a picture of what it calls the ``East Rutherford Yankees.'' New York Gov. Mario Cuomo says the Yankees' possible flight from the Bronx is to be taken seriously. Are New York City officials listening?

But enough musings: There's still nothing like the excitement of a playoff and a World Series to cheer a nippy fall evening. Batter up.

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