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Baseball's popularity "is soaring" as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa set HR records, according to a CNN/USA TODAY/ Gallup Poll, as reported by Mel Antonen of USA TODAY. The poll, conducted Monday and Tuesday, shows that 63% of the 1,082 surveyed said they are "a fan or somewhat of a fan" of pro baseball -- an increase of 19% since a similar poll taken in June. McGwire: "The best part about the home run chase is that it is bringing fans back to the ballpark. It's good for baseball." The 63% is the highest since the poll began tracking MLB's popularity in February '93. The previous high, 55%, was in August '94, before the strike. The low was 41% in April '95, when replacement players were playing in exhibition games (Mel Antonen, USA TODAY, 9/17). ALL TIED UP: Sosa hit his 63rd HR last night, tying him with McGwire. Sosa's Cubs played the Padres in front of 49,981 at Qualcomm Stadium, while McGwire's Cardinals played the Pirates in front of 39,758 at Busch Stadium (THE DAILY). HR RACE? In N.Y., Murray Chass writes on the suggestion that MLB "slighted" Sosa "in its treatment of him" during the HR chase, and that Sosa's race "is the reason." Tom Reich, who, along with partner Adam Katz, reps Sosa: "Sammy doesn't perceive it that way and neither do we. The attention that has been given to Sammy has been tremendous." MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said that he "had received some calls from fans who said they thought Sosa had been slighted." Selig: "I explained it to them and they were satisfied." Selig said that both McGwire and Sosa will be honored during the World Series, no matter who ends up with the HR record (Murray Chass, N.Y. TIMES, 9/17). ALL FOR A BALL? John Grass, the 46-year-old who caught McGwire's No. 63, presented the Cardinals with "a list of more than 30 items he wanted in exchange for the ball," including a trip to spring training, a chance for him and his son to throw out first pitches at Cards games, and items autographed by McGwire and Stan Musial. The list was forwarded to Cards Principal Owner Bill DeWitt, but GM Walt Jocketty said that the ball "is not worth that." Jocketty: "Unless it's the last one that Mark hits, I don't think it's worth that much" (Ric Bucher, WASHINGTON POST, 9/17). STATION ID: In Chicago, Jim Kirk writes to look for Cubs TV carriers, including WGN, "to carry more identifying logos ... in the corner of the screen" for every Sosa AB. Enough sports outlets "have been poaching live footage of Sosa's at-bats that Cubs' executives have suggested that outlets identify the footage" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 9/17).
NHL: The NHL awarded its 2000 All-Star Weekend to Toronto. The 50th All-Star Game will be held at the new Air Canada Centre (NHL). In Toronto, Lance Hornby writes that Maple Leaf Gardens "likely will be used" for the Heroes of Hockey old-timers game and the skills competition, while the National Trade Centre at Exhibition Place will host NHL fan events and other functions (TORONTO SUN, 9/17)....In L.A., Karen Crouse writes under the header "Penalty on Union: Brainwashing Blake," noting that unsigned Kings D Rob Blake "has been kidnapped ... by an increasingly militant group called the NHLPA." Crouse: "The Rob Blake we know never would have let his position as [VP] of the NHLPA supersede his loyalty to the Kings. ... The Rob Blake we know wouldn't have been among the more than 100 restricted free agents who remain unsigned. ... If they're smart, the Kings won't let the NHLPA hold their season ransom" (L.A. DAILY NEWS, 9/17). ...Penguins C Petr Nedved, beginning his second year as a holdout from the Pens, reached a contract agreement with the IHL Las Vegas Thunder. Nedved is expected to sign the deal upon his arrival in Las Vegas on Monday (LAS VEGAS REVIEW- JOURNAL, 9/17). IHL President & CEO Doug Moss is "working hard to improve" relations between the IHL and the NHL, but "fears" that deals like this "would hurt the relationship." Thunder GM Bob Strumm said Nedved's return is "not about money." Strumm: "In no way, shape or form would what we might be able to offer at this level compete in any way with what he could make in the NHL. All we would be able to provide is hockey" (LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL, 9/15). NOTES: The Broncos "have accepted the NFL's request" to play a preseason game next August in Sydney, Australia. Their opponent will be the Chargers, whose punter, Darren Bennett, is Australian (CO Springs GAZETTE-TELEGRAPH, 9/17). ...The three-game WNBA Brazil Tour '98, which will feature a team of WNBA All-Stars, is a joint effort of the league and the Confederao Brasileira de Basquete, and will include youth programs and appearances designed to increase basketball awareness. The first game is September 29 (W.H. Stickney, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 9/17).
"Both parties are at fault," according to Dave D'Alessandro of the Newark STAR-LEDGER, who offers his "solution" to the NBA's labor woes. D'Alessandro writes that the players' "main problem is that they are mesmerized by the misguided notion that fiscal stupidity should be the basis of fair market value." The owners, meanwhile, say that the players earned 58% of all basketball-related income (BRI) last year, but "what they don't tell you is that the BRI includes only" 40% of luxury-box income, 40% of signage, none of the revenue from NBA theme stores "that exploit the players' names, and none of the naming-rights revenue on arenas." D'Alessandro: "The only logical solution is to keep the present system but find a way to restrict annual increases." D'Alessandro suggests a "graduated raise system," in which "the annual increases in the standard contract is contingent on the base salary," and "profit sharing" of revenue sources such as gate and signage. He also suggests a new rookie scale whereby picks 1-10 are "bound" to five-year contracts, picks 11-20 for four years, 21-29 for three years, with all becoming unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire. D'Alessandro, noting that the NBA's last proposal to the union included a minimum salary of $350,000, with an extra $50,000 per season after five years of service: "The union should take the money and run, but not before asking for the $50,000 raises to kick in after two years" (Newark STAR-LEDGER, 9/17). PLAYERS FRUSTRATED, BUT UNITED: Sonics player rep Vin Baker: "This is definitely discouraging. We can come to an agreement to make this thing work. There has to be a happy medium. ... If we lock out for a long time, and if Michael Jordan retires, those are significant things that could really put us a big step back" (Portland OREGONIAN, 9/15). Raptors rep Dee Brown: "We might have a shortened training camp, a few pre-season games, but I'm optimistic we won't miss any regular-season games" (TORONTO SUN, 9/16). Pacers F Chris Mullin: "From what I've heard, it doesn't look like training camp will start on time. After that, who knows?" Pacers G Fred Hoiberg: "We just have to stay positive and stay together. If the guaranteed players do get paid, there can't be any jealousy" (INDIANAPOLIS STAR-NEWS, 9/16). Rockets C Hakeem Olajuwon: "It's sad. Both sides know there's so much at stake" (AP/S.A. EXPRESS-NEWS, 9/16). Grizzlies F Shareef Abdur-Rahim: "This is something you think would happen more to truck drivers or pilots. In professional sports, you wouldn't think this would be going on. ... As players, we have to put up the best deal, but hopefully we can do a deal where both sides are comfortable" (Vancouver PROVINCE, 9/15). Warriors rookie Antawn Jamison, on coming out of college early: "Honestly, I don't regret (my decision) at all. ... I definitely didn't think it would last this long and be this serious. I thought everything would be fixed by now. At most, I thought we'd miss a couple of days of training camp. But I didn't know it would be this much of a headache" (SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS, 9/17). MOVING CAMP: In Toronto, Frank Zicarelli reports that NBA teams "have been put on official notice to seek alternative training camp sites" (TORONTO SUN, 9/17).