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SPORTS WEEKEND | TV-RADIO / LARRY STEWART

ESPN and Baseball Need a Peace Summit

May 07, 1999|LARRY STEWART

The feud between ESPN and baseball is a lose-lose situation.

It came to the forefront this week with the announcement that baseball would terminate its regular-season contract with ESPN after this season, and with ESPN suing baseball, claiming their contract runs through 2002.

If the court finds in favor of baseball and allows it to void the contract, baseball loses exposure and an important, longtime relationship.

If the court rules for ESPN and says the cable network was within its rights when it moved three Sunday night baseball games from ESPN to ESPN2 to make room for NFL games, what's left is a strained relationship that probably will end after the 2002 season anyway.

At the core of the feud is nine hours of programming, among the 500 devoted to baseball on ESPN annually. And the difference between ESPN and ESPN2 is only 12 million homes, 76.2 million to 64.2 million. But baseball doesn't want to be second banana to the NFL, despite a disparity in ratings. Baseball spokesman Rich Levin said ESPN did not even inform the commissioner's office what it was planning to do.

"We know ESPN has been good for baseball, but baseball has been good for ESPN too," Levin said. "What else do they have for summertime programming?"

Baseball's move to void its regular-season, $40-million-a-year contract with ESPN comes at a bad time for ESPN. The cable network has just notified cable operators that it plans to increase what it charges them, reportedly 20% to about $1.25 a month per subscriber. ESPN needs regular-season baseball on its inventory to help appease operators.

Also, if ESPN loses Sunday and Wednesday night baseball, look for Fox Sports Net to snatch it up. That would be another notch in Fox's gun in its battle with ESPN for superiority in sports TV.

NO. 7 IS NO. 37

ESPN is to be congratulated on its "SportsCentury" project. The profiles of the top 50 athletes of the 20th century have all been excellent, and the one tonight at 7:30 on Mickey Mantle, voted the 37th-best North American athlete of the century, is no exception. It's another well researched, even-handed feature with tons of interviews.

The profile documents Mantle's athletic accomplishments, and also his drinking and womanizing. It shows Mantle, shortly before his death, saying, "I was no role model. I was just the opposite."

Columnist Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald says Mantle and Yankee teammate Billy Martin used to go into bars "as if they were great cowboys and size up the women as if they were steers before selecting them."

Mantle's widow, Merlyn, says she knew about the women, at least most of them. "Mick was my addiction," she says. "No matter what he did, I always went back for more."

Mantle spent his later years with his business manager, Greer Johnson, as his companion.

"I was asked what it felt like to be the other woman," Johnson says. "It was my true feeling that I was the woman."

Of that relationship, Merlyn says, "I was told to pray for Mick to get rid of his anger but if I was going to say a prayer for him, it would be for him to get hit by a Mack truck. I was so angry that I would think about killing him."

A YOUNG REPORTER'S DEBUT

Chris James, the Newhall Hart High senior who was severely burned when a physics experiment on the football field went bad, was a recent guest on the "Leeza" show with Leeza Gibbons at the NBC studios in Burbank. Before the show, James' mother told the producers her son aspired to be a sports reporter.

The producers contacted Fred Roggin, who let James interview the Angel of his choice. James selected Mo Vaughn. The interview ran on Channel 4 last Sunday as part of an excellent feature on James and his struggles since the accident last November.

"Chris asked his own questions, wrote the piece, and worked with editor Dino Castro in putting it together," Roggin said. "He's an amazing young man."

Asked this week about his career goals, James said, "I want to do something in television. Exactly what, I'm not quite sure yet."

SHORT WAVES

Vaughn's return to Fenway Park today will be televised by Channel 9 at 4 p.m. Saturday's 10 a.m. game will be on FX, with Steve Physioc and Jeff Torborg reporting, and Sunday's 10 a.m. game will be on Channel 9. . . . Jay Leno hasn't let up on the Clippers. On Tuesday night, talking about the movie "Entrapment," with Sean Connery, 68, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, 29, he said, "Let's see, 68-29. Sounds like a Clipper halftime score." On Wednesday, Leno said, "This weekend the NBA playoff season begins, or, as the Clippers call it, 'fishing season.' " . . . NBC has six NBA playoff games and TNT two this weekend. The Laker announcers Sunday will be the No. 1 crew of Bob Costas and Doug Collins. Game 2 on Tuesday will be on Fox Sports West. . . . Vlade Divac will talk about the ravages of war in his Serbian homeland at halftime of the second game of Saturday's NBC tripleheader.

IN CLOSING

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