WHEN baseball's "boys of summer" play deep into October, as they do this year, the game can take a walk on the wild side, weather-wise.
Atlanta hosts the opening two games of the World Series Saturday and Sunday, but the midseries games in Cleveland offer the greatest meteorological interest. They could be more an outdoor survival course than a picnic for ticket-holders.
Michele Nichols got a teeth-chattering preview of the possibilities last Sunday night, when she sat through a numbingly cold Indians-Mariners playoff game in Cleveland's Jacobs Field.
"It was 37 degrees, and I was in Row N in the upper deck," she says, still chilled by the thought of it. "The wind was right in our faces. Everybody was bundled up with coats, blankets, scarves, and hats. You didn't see people eating hot dogs - they were all drinking hot chocolate and coffee."
This might be OK for a Cleveland Browns football game in nearby Cleveland Stadium, but a thrilling Indians victory was all that saved the evening for Nichols, who does not relish sitting through any more icebox baseball.
According to the National Weather Service, Cleveland's daily temperature highs usually drop into the 50s this time of year, with lows in the 40s. Generally there is no measurable snowfall, but the "lake effect" - cold Canadian air masses passing over warmer Lake Erie waters - can produce occasional snow squalls.
Statistician and author Bill James observes that "Baseball really needs to have some good things happen for it. The playoffs have been exciting and fun up to now, and we don't need another Frost Bowl."
James is alluding to the coldest World Series on record, played in 1976 between the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees. (Records compiled by the National Baseball Hall of Fame only date back to 1975.) The average game-time temperature was 48.5 degrees F. Mercifully, the Reds made quick work of the American League champs, sweeping them in four straight games, played between Oct. 16 and 21.
The second game in particular resulted in a lot of bad press for baseball and its commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, who took it on the chin for appearing to play down the cold by sitting in New York's Shea Stadium without a coat.
In his book, "Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner" (Times Books, 1987), Kuhn relates how this became a cause celebre for influential New York Times sports columnist Red Smith, who Kuhn says wanted day games only for the Series.
Kuhn introduced night games to the World Series in 1971 and says that Smith, who viewed them as a sellout to TV, was "undaunted by the fact that night games permitted tens of millions of fans to see the Series" who otherwise couldn't. With the exception of one game, the Series has been a nocturnal event since 1985.
Playing at night didn't present weather problems in 1992 and 1993, when six Toronto-based Series games all posted game-time temperatures of 68 degrees, or in Minneapolis in 1991. Those games were played in domed stadiums.
To a degree, major-league baseball's western and southern migration and the advent of domed stadiums have provided partial insurance against postseason freeze-outs. Even in Denver, where the baseball and ski weather sometimes dance a jig, heating coils embedded in the Rockies' playing field guarantee a 52-degree playing surface, warm enough to melt falling snow.
"We've come to the point," James observes, "that you could set up a winter league with major-league teams. In 16 of 28 parks you could play baseball in December," a number that will increase with expansion to Phoenix and Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1998 and the possibility of more sliding-roof stadiums like Toronto's.
Some assume the World Series has been played later and later as the regular-season and postseason games have increased. This is true - up to a point.
The 1968 World Series, the last played before there were divisions and league playoffs, ran from Oct. 2 to Oct. 10. By comparison, the 1991 Series, another seven-game affair, ran Oct. 19-27.
History shows, however, that late October is not a new frontier for baseball. The very first World Series was played Oct. 23-25, 1884. Back then, no team's regular season exceeded 116 games, compared with the 150 or more that became the standard in 1920. If this year's Series arrives at a seventh game on Oct. 29, it would tie the previous record, when the New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in a decisive ninth game in 1889.
If the mercury plummets during this year's Series, conditions would probably favor two already strong pitching staffs.
For one, says Yale University's Robert Adair, who has written about the physics of baseball, the ball doesn't fly as far in cold weather and may be less elastic. Then, too, scoring in baseball is closely related to temperature, stat man James says: "There are a lot more runs scored when it's 90 degrees than when's it's 60. When it gets down to 40, the only guy on the field who is able to stay warm is the pitcher."
Ray Knight, Cincinnati's new manager, says, "No hitter likes baseball in the cold." Inside pitches can give batters "bumblebee hands," a stinging that batting gloves only partially dampen.
A concern of some is that Major League Baseball might expand the playoffs further. Changing the first round from a best-of-five format to best-of-seven could mean the first November World Series games - and possibly the first snow-out in history.
"We really don't want to play in November," Major League Baseball spokesman Richard Levin says, "because, as it is, we can run into weather problems. It's something we're concerned about."