Baseball's Opening Night Was Great - No Fooling

'ARE you kidding?" Many must have asked that question yesterday, April Fools' Day, upon learning that the 1996 major-league baseball season had started the night before in Seattle.

A season-opener in March? At night? In the Pacific Northwest? On ESPN?

It was all true.

In baseball's earliest start ever, the Seattle Mariners hosted the Chicago White Sox in a game worthy of its lead-off position. Seattle won, 3-2, in the bottom of the 12th inning, on Alex Rodriguez's bases-loaded single.

Such drama was a continuation of last year's Mariners' season, when the club came from behind 43 times to win. A noisy Kingdome crowd of 57,467 was momentarily silenced in the first inning when the Big Hurt (Chicago's Frank Thomas) took the Big Unit (Seattle pitcher Randy Johnson) "downtown" with a two-run homer. After that it was a classic pitching duel, involving 12 hurlers altogether. Johnson struck out 14 in seven innings, and the Mariner bullpen added seven more Ks to tie a club record of 21 strikeouts.

The game, ironically, took 4 hours, 7 minutes to complete - ironic because baseball is seeking ways to speed up play. It was long but good baseball.

Tennessee wins title No. 4

ON paper, the 1996 women's college basketball championship game was anything but a mismatch. Tennessee and Georgia are twin peaks in the powerful Southeastern Conference, and Sunday night's National Collegiate Athletic Association title game promised to be a fierce regional rivalry elevated to national status.

But what 23,291 fans witnessed in the Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum was a surprisingly lopsided 83-65 victory for Tennessee's Lady Vols (short for Volunteers). Coach Pat Summitt had told her team before the game that they had what it takes "to ace this exam," and they did, outrebounding Georgia, 54-39, holding Georgia's star, Saudia Roundtree, to just eight points, and turning the tables on the team that had beaten them 77-71 in January.

In its semifinal game, Tennessee had defeated defending champion Connecticut, which not only defeated the Vols in last year's championship game but also snapped their 69-game home court winning streak during the 1995-96 season.

Summitt, the coach of the US women's Olympic team in 1984 when it won a gold medal, now has coached Tennessee to four national championships.

US women's basketball: 37-0 and counting

SINCE an 11-woman United States "dream team" began playing and practicing last October, it has won 37 straight games against US college and national teams. For Rebecca Lobo, who was the star of last season's undefeated University of Connecticut squad, it means a personal winning streak of 72 games.

Now, with the Olympics in sight, the competition gets tougher for the US National Team. First up, in Atlanta on Sat., April 6, is a squad of this year's college All-Americans. ABC will televise the game. ESPN provides the coverage on April 13 when Team USA plays China, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist, in Philadelphia. (The US women won the Olympic bronze medal in 1992.)

Vote scuttles Ohio shuffle

THE recent vote on a sales tax increase in Cincinnati effectively quashed the possibility for one of the most ironic moves in National Football League history. If Cincinnati voters had not passed the measure to pay for the construction of new football and baseball stadiums, Cleveland might have courted Cincinnati's Bengals football team. Cleveland wants to replace the Browns, who have gone to Baltimore.

The Bengals are run by general manager Mike Brown. His father, Paul, was the original coach of the Cleveland Browns and an innovative football legend in the state. In 1962 the elder Brown was dismissed by the Browns' new majority owner, Art Modell, despite 16 winning seasons in 17 years as coach. This decision was almost as controversial as the one Model made to move his team to Baltimore in December.

In 1968, Paul Brown resurfaced cross-state at the helm of Cincinnati's expansion NFL franchise. He served there until his passing in 1991. A thinking man's coach, he is credited with being the first to retain assistants year-round, to make extensive use of classroom teaching techniques in coaching, and to experiment with electronic communications between the sideline and the field.

Touching other bases

Pop quiz: Because of the prominence of its top-ranked men's basketball team, the public knows the University of Massachusetts as the Minutemen. What nickname do the school's women athletes use? (Answer at end.)

As part of the centennial celebration of the the modern Olympics, athletes from 10 countries will compete this Saturday, April 6, in Athens in a reenactment of the first modern Games in 1896. On the program are the 12 track and field events that made up those Olympics: the 100-, 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter runs, the hurdles, high jump, long jump, triple jump, pole vault, shot put, discus, and marathon.

College basketball's National Invitation Tournament, which ended Thursday in New York with Nebraska beating St. Joseph's, must be the largest consolation event in sports, and possibly the most superfluous. The 24 teams invited failed to make the 64-team field for the NCAA men's tournament. The latter event used to include a consolation game for its semifinal losers, but eliminated the third-place contest in 1982.

Quiz answer: The Minutewomen.

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