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MINORS SHOULDN'T ROLL DICE AND RISK LOSING VEGAS FOR PLAYOFF FINAL

The second Triple-A World Series opens Monday night, but the big news might actually emerge after it's over.

That's when Triple-A officials meet with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau about renewing the agreement for the Series. The original three-year contract, which provides $750,000 per year of sponsorship support from the bureau, expires after the final out in 2000.

Both International League president Randy Mobley and PCL president Branch Rickey want to make sure next year's event isn't shrouded by uncertainty about whether the Series will stay in Las Vegas or perhaps move to another interested party such as New Orleans.

"When we get out there, we'll find out an appropriate time to sit down with them," Mobley said this week by phone. "We certainly hope to have it done by the end of this calendar year. We want to seek their support again because we see what's it's done in our cities to have people talking about 'The Road to Las Vegas.' The fact we have this in a destination-type city is a real significant thing."

Spend enough time in Triple-A clubhouses and you'll find the lure of a week in Las Vegas has dramatically altered players' views of minor-league playoffs.

Often viewed as a nuisance in the past by players who simply wanted to go home, the thought of an extra week's salary, pumped-up per diems and a winner's check has energized postseason play. "Viva Las Vegas" was the catch phrase of choice in the Bisons' clubhouse during last year's playoff run.

"We're still not running at a sprinter's pace with this thing, but it's going at a quicker pace," Mobley said. "There's no question we're light years ahead of last year."

The '98 event, which saw New Orleans beat the Bisons in four games, was hastily arranged and there were few sponsors secured in time to promote it throughout the season. This year, The Money Store has become a national sponsor for Triple-A baseball and will promote appearances by Hall of Famer Jim Palmer at this year's Series.

That's a good start. One of the big complaints about the '98 Series was that you hardly knew it was going on -- even if you were in Las Vegas.

The 10,000-seat Cashman Field was never more than half full for any game and there weren't many ancillary events to lure the at-the-ready tourist audience looking for a three-hour diversion from the casinos.

That won't be the case this year. Booster club members from the 30 Triple-A teams have been invited with specially priced travel packages and have been offered a welcome cocktail party Sunday night as well as a golf tournament and dinner cruise on Wednesday's off day. Both of those events will include players and coaches from the two teams.

The McFarlane Collection, a traveling memorabilia display that includes the last four home runs hit last year by Mark McGwire, will be in downtown Las Vegas next Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Pitch-by-pitch coverage will be provided on two web sites (www.tripleaworldseries.com and www.minorleaguebaseball.com).

"Those may not be big things to people when they stand individually," Mobley said. "But when you bring them all together, they help create an atmosphere and aura about the event."

Even though they weren't in contention to repeat as IL champions much of the season, the Bisons have been in the middle of the planning.

Buffalo general manager Mike Buczkowski, who provided Mobley with a detailed review of last year's Series, and vice president of marketing Marta Hiczewski have been keys to the preparation. Tom Burns, the team's director of public relations and marketing, will be assisting the media on site. OneSource, a marketing arm of Rich Products, is the travel service arranging trips for fans from all Triple-A cities.

"They've been so very supportive and it started right after they got home last year," Mobley said. "'Bucz's input has been tremendously helpful and they've really provided great perspective."

High on the Bisons' gripe list was the games' woeful start times, as dictated by ESPN2. There's been no progress on that front: Four of this year's potential five games will again start at 11 or 11:30 p.m. Eastern time, with Game Five next Saturday slated for 10 p.m.

"We have to work on that, to show that this is a proven event worthy of respect," Mobley said. "We're still a new kid on the block but when we have that track record, we'll get favorable responses from the television front."

ESPN2 is contracted to televise the series this year and next year, but Triple-A officials are known to be very unhappy with the network's unwillingness to move games to earlier start times. Last year's decisive fourth game stretched to 3:26 a.m. Eastern time. Thus, when the ESPN contract expires, there will likely be discussions with other entities (Fox Sports Net?) about showing the games at a more reasonable hour. That's a change that must happen.

One thing Triple-A operators should maintain the status quo on is the site. A contract extension with Las Vegas is vital. There's been much more of a buzz around Triple-A pennant races the last two years and the reason is that the minors have their own version of the Fall Classic.

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