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Game's vital signs become stronger

DETROIT -- We're playing the World Series directly across the street from Ford Field, the site of last February's Super Bowl. It's a mammoth structure that looms over Comerica Park's left-field corner but don't think that's a metaphor for how the sports are doing. While the NFL professes to be the paragon of parity even if that means just about every team is mediocre, baseball is the sport that's actually doing the job of spreading its wealth and energizing its fan base.

Either the Tigers or Cardinals will pour champagne this week and become baseball's seventh different champion over the last seven years. There has never been a 7-in-7 run in the NFL, NBA or NHL.

"It's been a wonderful postseason, and that's been tremendous for baseball," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said before Game One. "It's just been great, and hopefully this Series will continue that and won't be a letdown for fans all over the country."

The Tigers' appearance means that 11 out of the 30 teams have made the World Series in this decade and 14 of the 30 have made it over the last 10 seasons. In the last six Series, the Yankees and Cardinals are the only teams to appear more than once.

That is parity. As the Yankees have proved year after year in this decade, spending all your money doesn't mean you will win. The Cardinals entered this season just 13th in payroll at $87 million while the Tigers were 14th at $82 million. The Mets ($101 million) were the only team in the top 10 payrolls to even make the LCS.

Revenue sharing has worked in baseball, and the teams with lower payrolls can't complain they have no chance to win. The problems with teams such as the Pirates and Royals is their own incompetence in scouting and development -- not anything inherently wrong with the system.

"We don't have to take a back seat to anyone when it comes to parity anymore," Commissioner Bud Selig said during the ALCS. "You could not have said that two decades ago or even a decade ago."

While critics obsess over television ratings that can be spotty without New York teams getting the focus, fans continue voting with their feet and their wallets.

The major leagues sold more than 76 million tickets this season for the first time, breaking their attendance record for the third straight year, and an increase of more than 1.1 million from 2005.

Eight clubs topped 3 million in attendance, and new two-team records were set in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The Yankees joined the Blue Jays (1991-93) as the only teams to have more than one season at 4 million as they broke their own AL record with a ticket count of 4,248,067. More than 7 million bought tickets for the Yanks and Mets in New York, and the Yankees' home-road total of 7,280,808 was an all-time record.

There were several other success stories. The Red Sox became the first team in history to set a franchise attendance mark seven straight years, the Cardinals sold out every game at new Busch Stadium and eclipsed 3.4 million, and the Tigers had their highest count since 1984.

The minor leagues set an attendance mark for the third straight year as well, selling 41,710,357 tickets -- an increase of more than 377,000. Even the Bisons, now playing in a 19-year-old stadium, saw a bump this year in Dunn Tire Park with a per-game average of 8,811 that was their highest since 2001.

Baseball and Fox signed a new seven-year, $3 billion TV deal at the All-Star Game and last week announced that TBS will become a major partner in the postseason, broadcasting either the ALCS or NLCS each year through 2013.

And the game is at one of its most peaceful points in labor relations. The four-year deal signed in 2002 expires in December and there is little talk of any trouble as talks quietly go on in the background. Rumors surfacing here are that Selig is relishing the thought of announcing a new deal sometime during this Series.

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Series dates changing

This is the last World Series scheduled over two weekends. As part of the MLB's new deal with Fox, the schedule changes next year so the network doesn't have to have two games (One and Six) on Saturday, the lowest-rated day of the week.

The Series will open on a Tuesday and be played Tuesday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday and Sunday, Tuesday-Wednesday. Selig has sent hints he'd like to see one game played in the afternoon, and it might make sense for baseball to try the Saturday game. There has not been a Series day game since Game Six between the Twins and Cardinals in 1987.

In the stands, meanwhile, MLB has made a big push to turn the Series into a Super Bowl-like cash cow.

Fans in Buffalo remember paying $60 (U.S.) for the 100 level seats at the then-SkyDome in Toronto in 1992 and 1993. Box seat Series tickets this year, priced by the commissioner's office, have been increased from $185 to $250 per game (suites and club seats vary by ballpark and are higher). Bleachers will go for $75.

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Manuel on hot seat

The Phillies hired some managers-in-waiting for Charlie Manuel's staff last week, adding Art Howe as third-base coach, Davey Lopes as first base coach and Jimy Williams as bench coach. The message seems pretty clear they have some ready-made replacements on hand if Manuel's club struggles early in 2007, but the current skipper scoffed at that.

"Why wouldn't we want to have the best possible people we can have?" Manuel said. "I feel good about it because I think we have the best possible staff."

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NLCS nitpicking

By the time the Mets-Cardinals series ended, the Mets had about as much starting pitching as the Sabres had starting defensemen last June. Oliver Perez and his 3-13 record were all manager Willie Randolph could go to after Steve Trachsel essentially quit on his team in Game Three, stunning his skipper and teammates by pulling himself from the game after a glancing blow to the leg from a line drive.

As least Perez pitched well and didn't conjure New Yorkers' memories of Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez blowing up for the Yankees in Game Seven of the '04 ALCS against the Red Sox.

But still, Perez had no business being on the mound. A little more than two months ago, Aug. 4 to be exact, he got lit up for seven runs (including two homers) in 2 2/3 innings against the Bisons in Dunn Tire Park. And now he's starting Game Seven of the LCS?

Willie Randolph caught Cito Gaston disease at the worst time in Game Seven, refusing to insert closer Billy Wagner in the ninth inning of a tie game and watching Aaron Heilman give up the pennant-winning home run to St. Louis' Yadier Molina. In the early '90s with the Blue Jays, Gaston used the same flawed theory and it probably cost him the 1991 ALCS against Minnesota as he didn't use Tom Henke or Duane Ward in such a situation.

Why is it so hard for managers to get over the idea they'll never use their closer at home if the game enters the ninth inning tied?

Carlos Delgado's 1,711 games without a postseason appearance until this season had been the most among active major leaguers. That role is now taken over by Jeromy Burnitz (1,694).

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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