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DECIPHERING baseball ratings is usually about as confusing as Abbott and Costello's legendary "Who's on First?" routine.

But one thing is certain. Though the ratings are clearly down, they haven't fallen because of CBS' announcers. Jack Buck and Tim McCarver on the National League series and Dick Stockton and Jim Kaat on the American League series have been doing a very good job.

McCarver and Buck were especially sharp in Game Four when Cincinnati's Eric Davis threw out the Pirates' Bobby Bonilla when he attempted to stretch a double into a triple late in a 5-3 Pittsburgh loss. Both men made it clear that Bonilla made the right play and Davis just made a better one.

Stockton and Kaat were just as sharp during the controversy in Game Four of the Oakland-Boston series when Red Sox hurler Roger Clemens was ejected for cursing umpire Terry Cooney. Both men questioned the decision. CBS also called on umpire Don Denkinger and McCarver to add their two cents. No surprise here. The ump defended Cooney, the ex-player criticized him.

Dispelling the notion that pitchers and catchers don't argue calls all the time, McCarver noted that as a catcher for 20 years he used to argue calls with the umpire 10 times a game.

Network executives can get into a pretty good argument over ratings. This fall's numbers are more confusing than usual because the post-season games are on a different network and have been scheduled differently because of the April lockout.

The lockout moved the regular season back so it ended on a Wednesday instead of a Sunday. As a result, the National League played its first two playoff games on a Thursday and Friday and then took Saturday and Sunday off. The schedule was announced last April, but few paid attention until the playoffs began and the weekend afternoon games were missing.

Why the lost NL weekend?

"Looking at a possible 14-game schedule over 10 days, this was considered the most fair," said CBS publicist Susan Kerr.

Of course, CBS already had a decent weekend schedule, carrying the Florida State-Miami college football game last Saturday and the National Football League on Sunday.

That was probably enough sports for one network. When NBC and ABC carried baseball, NBC didn't carry college football on Saturday and ABC didn't carry the NFL on Sunday, so scheduling baseball was less of a problem.

Weekend afternoon baseball games might have cost CBS affiliates more local time, something they don't like to relinquish.

Ironically, the American League series started two days after the National League series and still ended first.

Defending champion Oakland has marquee stars but its dominance of the Red Sox was not good for business or for ratings. Networks obviously can sell more commercials with more games, and ratings also tend to increase the longer a series goes.

The league championships never have been ratings success stories, often drawing about 40 to 60 percent fewer viewers than the World Series. The first five prime-time playoff games this season averaged a mediocre 13.2 rating, which is off about 10 percent from the first five games a year ago.

However, the loss comes with some asterisks.

For one thing, the NL playoffs a year ago featured big market teams San Francisco and Chicago.

Secondly, this year's first NL game was played on a Thursday night, when CBS has to face something NBC didn't have to worry about when it carried the league championships a year ago: NBC's Thursday lineup.

CBS also had to face a new Thursday night lineup from Fox, which featured a rerun of "The Simpsons" and the premiere of a high school drama, "Beverly Hills, 90210."

The A's opponent this season, Boston, was a much bigger drawing card than Toronto, last year's opponent. But that advantage was offset by the scheduling of the series' two prime-time games.

While last year's AL prime-time games were played Tuesday and Friday nights, this year's games were on Saturday and Sunday nights.

Saturday is the lowest viewing night of the week and also is dominated by NBC.

Sunday is the highest viewing and most competitive night on television, with Fox becoming a threat to the Big Three networks last season and TNT adding a fall schedule of NFL games this season.

Indeed, last Sunday's Bills-Los Angeles Raiders game averaged a 6.8 cable rating for about 3.4 million viewers. Presumably, many of them were baseball fans, too.

The bottom line, of course, is the bottom line. It appears that CBS' biggest problem is it paid more than $1 billion for four years of baseball when the nation is either in or headed towards a recession. No matter how high its ratings, CBS is expected to lose $100 million on baseball this year.

However, the idea behind CBS' pursuit of baseball was that it would serve as a launching pad for its entertainment programs.

That is why you are seeing so many promos for its new series, some of which have been unsuitable for afternoon audiences. One promo, for "Evening Shade", had Burt Reynolds and Hal Holbrook recalling their first sexual experiences.

CBS' hope is that the baseball will bring more younger and male viewers to the network and that they will stay once the World Series ends.

This year's World Series will determine if last year's disastrous ratings were an anomaly or a trend. The series between cross-bay rivals Oakland and San Francisco averaged a 16.4 rating as the A's swept a series that was interrupted by the earthquake.

A year before, the Los Angeles-Oakland five-game series had a 23.9 rating, which was in the ballpark of most series in the 1980s. The decade's second-lowest rated series was the 1984 series between San Diego and Detroit, which averaged a 22.9 for five games.

The World Series starts Tuesday, which means it will only run on one weekend even if it goes seven games.

Since Saturday night is the lowest viewing night of the week and CBS' Sunday night entertainment programs usually do well anyway, CBS probably isn't losing any sleep over the schedule.

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