By Ross Atkin, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
IS baseball back? Or has it followed what was arguably its worst year ever with its second-worst year ever?
On paper, some of the figures look more grim than a sub-.200 batting average. For instance:
* Average attendance at big-league games during the regular season dropped 20 percent, from 31,612 to 25,257 fans.
* An Associated Press poll released Oct. 1 found that 6 out of 10 people say they are less interested in baseball now than in August 1994, when a seven-month labor strike began.
* According to some sources, local TV ratings are down.
But beyond pure data, individuals who consider themselves ''baseball people'' indicate that, at best, the major leagues are still piecing together their shattered public support.
Sports columnist Tom Weir of USA Today says baseball remains an unhappy game.
Paul White, editor of Baseball Weekly, draws a similar conclusion: ''There's something different about this season,'' he says. ''It hasn't quite felt comfortable. It hasn't quite felt right.'' He wonders if it's ''a temporary thing,'' something that an exciting playoff season - in which Cleveland, Seattle, Atlanta, and Cincinnati have advanced to the League Championships - might rectify.
Even a year after a bitter strike wiped out the 1994 playoffs and World Series, people are still ''exorcising their own demons as to how they will respond'' to professional baseball, says Bill Sutton, an associate professor of sports studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Professor Sutton says that the loss of the '94 World Series was a turnoff to many fans, a breach of almost unbridgeable proportions. ''Some people have pointed out to me,'' he says, ''that the World Series was held throughout World War I and World War II. War couldn't stop it. The only thing that stopped it was baseball itself. That's significant.''
Now the big leagues are trying to make amends with various fan-oriented initiatives and by playing until a new champion is crowned. The latter activity has produced some riveting theater.
The Yankees, for example, won a 15-inning thriller from Seattle in their series opener, only to lose the decisive fifth game of the first round when Ken Griffey Jr. scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning. Cleveland opened the playoffs with a 13-inning victory over Boston, then swept the Red Sox in three games.
Although there was some unevenness in the first round, a few were decided by one run or late-game heroics before capacity crowds. The tension could increase tonight as the best-of-seven league championship series begin with Cincinnati hosting Atlanta and Seattle hosting Cleveland.
This makes Sutton cautiously optimistic. ''I wouldn't say baseball is back, but I would say this is a big step toward it coming back,'' he observes.
Karl Ravech, the anchor of ESPN's ''Baseball Tonight,'' says that last year the fans felt jilted when the postseason was taken away. ''This year they said to the owners, 'We'll take away your regular season [by not attending] and show up for the postseason,'' Ravech says. ''The message that has been sent during the playoffs is that when the games are exciting and mean something, the fans are going to turn out.''
Dennis Lowell, an avid fan living in Milford, N.H., claims he was never as down on baseball as some people he knows. Now, he says, ''I'm feeling good [about the game] with a little hesitation.''
On principle, he says, he refused to purchase any major-league tickets this year, although he did attend two Red Sox games with free tickets. The fans, in his view, have been ''gypped again,'' with a second short season. In 1994, Major League Baseball took an ''incomplete'' by playing only 113 games of the standard 162-game season, and this year played a 144-game slate.
For statistics-happy fans like Lowell, this invalidates somewhat the regular season since it eliminates the possibility of season-long records. ''You can't prorate things and compare what happens in 144 games to what might happen in 162,'' he says. ''It's not how baseball works. It's a game of hot and cold.''
Presently, he points out, Cleveland slugger Albert Belle is the player with the hot bat. ''He turned it on in August and September'' - Belle hit 17 of his 50 home runs in September - ''and if the season had started a month earlier, he might have turned it on a month earlier.''
While the abbreviated season sabotaged most record setting, it was long enough to incorporate Cal Ripken's endurance record. The Baltimore shortstop surpassed Lou Gehrig when he played in his 2,131st straight game on Sept. 6, a streak (begun in 1982) that captivated the media and helped restore the public's faith in the game.
''The Ripken record occurred at a crucial time, late in the season,'' says Baseball Weekly's White. ''It got people to pay attention to the sport.''
Ripkenmania got the ball rolling, and a pair of down-to-the-wire division and wild-card races and high-intensity playoff games have maintained the momentum.
But a high hurdle remains that baseball must leap before it can return to widespread public favor: a new labor agreement. Without one, many observers say, baseball is whistling in the dark.