Before the 84th World Series even began, there was speculation that TV viewership would be off as a result of the all-midwestern matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins. As one writer observed, there wasn't the mutual wrath that can grow out of geographic rivalries, such as when East meets West (Yankees-Dodgers, for example) or when two naturally competitive regional neighbors tangle, as in last year's Boston-New York confrontation.
Then, too, the Twins have not been one of baseball's glamour teams, and this edition of the storied Cardinals may go down as one of the weakest offensive teams in World Series history. On the surface, therefore, this year's classic didn't promise to be compelling theater.
Given these and other factors, it really wasn't surprising to find that viewership did indeed sag in the early going. The opener was the lowest-rated prime-time Series game ever. And Nielsen tabulations found the first five games had a combined 22.6 rating compared to 26.2 at the same point a year ago - indicating a decrease of some 3 million households.
But the teams involved may be only part of the reason for the ratings plunge. Indeed, the overabundance of nationally televised baseball at this time of year seems to invite a dip in viewership until the Series really heats up. People can only watch so much baseball before they need a break, and with the league playoffs now also held in a best-of-seven format, a sense of burnout can begin to creep in just as the big show gets underway.
Even the most avid baseball fan, for example, must have been practically overwhelmed by this year's roughly 39 hours of network playoff coverage - much of it in prime time. After all, 39 hours represents about three times as much time as a football buff spends watching New Year's Day bowl games.
There are, of course, good reasons why baseball switched from the best-of-five playoff format two years ago. On a strictly business level, it meant more revenue. Beyond that, however, a longer playoff supposedly creates fairer competition, forcing teams to demonstrate depth and balance - especially in their pitching staffs - rather than relying too heavily on one or two key performers.
On the minus side, however, the longer playoffs rob the World Series of some of its specialness - and may overexpose the sport on the eve of its showcase event. Stadium in limelight
Despite the criticism some have heaped on indoor baseball, few would disagree that the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was the headliner of this Series. It was a source of curiosity and controversy, and some believe it may have provided a preview of the game's future.
Never before had any portion of a Series been played indoors, and the Metrodome, with its white ceiling and Glad Bag-like right field wall, didn't make the visiting Cardinals feel any too comfortable. The Twins, of course, felt right at home, a fact reflected in their best-in-the-majors home record during the regular season.
The home team here has perhaps the loudest crowd in baseball history as an ally. With a roof to contain the sound, Minnesotans have become fascinated by their ability to achieve new noise levels. One writer renamed it the Decibeldome after the cheering in an early game approached the loudness of a jet plane at close range. And the count hit similar levels again Saturday when Kent Hrbek's grand slam homer climaxed an 11-5 victory that sent the Series to a seventh game Sunday night.
In addition to inspiring the Twins, the noise makes communicating and concentrating on the field difficult for the visitors. St. Louis pitcher Joe Magrane tried using earplugs in the first game, but they didn't help. And several times throughout the Series, Cardinal outfielders, unable to hear one another, had near collisions.
This cacophony brought a new frenzied dimension to the sport, and inspired one St. Louis fan to display a banner reading:``Take me outside to the ball game.''
Supporting the yelling and whistling was the canned sound of the kind many teams use to solicit fan involvement. The gigantic left field message board flashed ``Twins Express'' and an amplified locomotive whistle blew every time Minnesota rallied. And whenever a Cardinal pitcher was taken out, most of the 55,000 fans joined a recording in a ``Happy Trails'' serenade.
Most of this seemed relatively harmless. It at least seemed far less intimidating than the ``We will, we will, rock you'' chant employed by some pro sports teams in recent years, including the Mets during the '86 Series.
The use of sound tracks and message boards to hype regular season crowds can seem manipulative, but at the Series - and especially here - these things were more like additives than artificial stimulators.
The Minnesota fans, with their Homer Hankies, were part of the show, and sensed they could influence the outcome. Their antics, which included the ``Wave,'' are perhaps a barometer of the state of spectating in this TV age. Those who pay and expend the effort to go to games want to be more than passively involved; otherwise they might as well stay home, save money, and get the benefit of TV's many replays, expert analysis, and closeups.
Baseball will definitely not become a studio sport if it can encourage the type of fan involvement witnessed here. The World Series is a magic time, though, and what happens during this period isn't easily duplicated later. Certainly, nothing quite like this Sound Series is likely to happen again until the next fall classic played indoors.