Baseball’s best was on display this season

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Baseball is back.
Or is it?
What might be the best team ever put the exclamation point on what almost certainly was the best season ever Wednesday, when the New York Yankees completed their sweep of the San Diego Padres.
So why did those four games produced the lowest television ratings for any World Series ever?
Take your pick: Increasing competition for an audience. Cable. The Internet. A series that wasn’t competitive, even though three of the four games were. The “all-politics-is-local” effect, wherein people pay attention to national elections only when there’s something at stake in their neighborhood Ñ or in baseball’s case, only when the locals are playing.
“We’ll never know,” commissioner Bud Selig said Thursday, “but my guess is if the Padres had won a game or two, and they were certainly in a position to do that, the numbers would have picked up with each game.”
As with the other reasons listed above, there is evidence to support that theory. This year’s series earned Fox an average rating of 14.1 (each rating point equals almost a million viewers), a full 25 percent below what the NBA finals registered in June.
Last year, an epic Game 7 drew a 24.5 rating and saved the Cleveland-Florida series from slipping below the previous ratings floor, 16.4, set by the 1989 earthquake-interrupted Oakland-San Francisco series. But as Selig pointed out from his office in Milwaukee — where he arrived after a morning flight from San Diego — the national TV ratings for the postseason are hardly the only numbers to consider.
“Overall,” he added, “it would be hard for anyone to conclude that this hasn’t been an unbelievable season.”
As far as numbers go, that depends on whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty.
During the regular season, pumped up by the home-run chase between St. Louis’ Mark McGwire and Chicago’s Sammy Sosa, baseball’s national television partners saw double-digit increases. And quite a few of the local club’s television partners did even better. Skeptics would note, however, that the home-run race was a once-in-a-lifetime event, made even more accessible to viewers because it didn’t require attention for a whole game. With a remote control, you could see an afternoon’s worth of action in a few minutes, and still watch yet another show in its entirety.
On the attendance front, a record 70.6 million fans turned out, but that total included two new franchises coming on line. The per-game average of 29,376 was up nearly 4 percent from last year, but still 7 percent off from the pre-strike average of 31,612 in 1994.
On the other hand, there was no arguing with the product on the field. McGwire and Sosa didn’t just break the single-season home-run record, widely considered the most significant mark in sports; they played an incredible game of “Top This” that went down the last day of the season.
After playing in 2,632 consecutive games, Cal Ripken finally sat one out. There was the wild, wild-card race between the Cubs, Giants and Mets that went to a one-game playoff. There was Yankee David Wells’ perfect game and his teammates’ almost-as-impressive 114 regular-season wins.
Finally, and not insignificantly, there was finally a real commissioner. Five years after helping lead the palace coup that dumped Fay Vincent, Selig quit trying to wear two hats. He accepted the commissioner’s post full time in July, turning over the Milwaukee Brewers to his daughter for safekeeping. Proof of Selig’s smarts is evident already; he’s careful not take credit for the game’s resurgence.
“If you’d come to me last April and laid out the scenario for this season, we both would have laughed. In 1994, when we had to endure the strike, I said I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now,” he said, “I’m happy to say I’m in the right place at the right time.”
That was true Wednesday night in San Diego, too. McGwire was on hand to throw out the first pitch and afterward, wound up sitting to Selig’s right along the third base line. A foul off the bat of New York’s Chuck Knoblauch was headed right at the commissioner, when McGwire, a first baseman, fielded it cleanly and handed it off to a fan.
“Funny thing,” Selig recalled. “When Mark sat down I promised the only thing he had to do the rest of the night was protect us from foul balls. And wouldn’t you know …”