Changes in Baseball Herald the Spring

THE beginning of baseball spring training saw one owner, Cincinnati's loose-tongued Marge Schott, ushered out the door, and another owner, the Yankees' George Steinbrenner, returned from exile.

It witnessed the return to the Chicago White Sox of a mended Bo Jackson, a two-sport star trying to make a comeback in one. And in a development that has Chicago's North Siders talking, Hillary Rodham Clinton will throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Chicago Cubs' April 5 opener.

The Boston Red Sox managed to raise a few eyebrows with the news that Manager Butch Hobson has called a team meeting to discuss banishing beer from the team's locker room this season.

These developments all vied for attention, though certainly the lion's share went to Steinbrenner's return. It was made an event unto itself, with the issuance of special "The Boss is Back" press passes, a grand entry by private jet, and the presence of a press corps hanging on the controversial executive's every sound bite. Steinbrenner, who heralded his own return by posing on the cover of Sports Illustrated dressed as Napoleon, was suspended 2-1/2 years ago for associating with an admitted gambler.

Despite all the hullabaloo about Steinbrenner and other news from Florida and Arizona, the development with the greatest long-range impact on major-league baseball was the preliminary approval by the owners to expand the playoffs, adopt limited interleague play, and divide each league - National and American - into three divisions, from two each. The process for gaining full approval for these changes has only begun, but they probably will take effect by 1995, barring serious opposition.

Doubling the size of the playoffs from four to eight teams would mean more teams battling for postseason berths in September, when fan interest can drop off significantly. The owners supposedly have found that this change agrees with a majority of fans, including two-thirds of those in the 18-to-34 age group. A question, though: With three rounds to the postseason, would the World Series be pushed into November? Some adjustments in the scheduling seem likely.

The separation of the National and American Leagues provides the World Series with some of its intrigue, and much of its distinctiveness. But here, too, the owners appear ready to follow in the footsteps of pro basketball, football, and hockey. The opportunity to tap into natural geographic rivalries - the Dodgers vs. the Angels in Los Angeles, for example, or the Houston Astros vs. the Dallas-area Texas Rangers - is too tantalizing to pass up. The proposal calls for 10 to 20 interleague games. `Big D as in `defeat,' and lots of them

An office colleague who long ago acquired a $45 seat to see the Boston Celtics host the Dallas Mavericks on March 26 has my sympathy. True, the buyer should beware, but how was anyone to know that what was a reasonably bad team last season, when they won 22 of 82 games, would become so unreasonably bad?

At press time, the Mavericks (4-52) were winning at a .071 clip, which, if maintained, would "exceed" the record season-long low of .110 turned in by the Philadelphia 76ers 20 years ago. When a team's winning percentage is below .200, perhaps a retroactive discount is in order - at least to fans who bought tickets before the season began.

At the end of last week, the Mavericks announced a couple of developments they hope will begin to turn things around. They hired Quinn Buckner, a former NBA player who has been working as a basketball analyst for NBC sports, to begin coaching the team next season. Buckner has no previous coaching experience. After a long impasse in contract negotiations, the Mavs also signed first-round draft pick Jimmy Jackson, who once said he'd never play for Dallas. The Mavs reportedly agreed to pay Jackson his first -year salary of $2.6 million for only 28 of 82 games. Tennessee corners a corner of the Olympics

Although Atlanta hosts the 1996 Olympics, a sliver of it has been apportioned to Tennessee, which will stage white-water slalom canoeing on the Ocoee River, about a two-hour drive from Atlanta. The Centennial Olympics will thus help celebrate Tennessee's bicentennial.

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