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ATLANTA STUMBLES AGAIN IN BASEBALL’S BIG GAME

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Memo to Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox: the next time you manage an All-Star game, do your pitchers a favor. Leave 'em home.

Atlanta pitchers are still new to this All-Star and World Series stuff, so Cox and his Braves argue their 0-4 record in baseball's showcase attractions over the past 2 1/2 seasons doesn't reflect their ability."How can you be bad if you're playing in World Series and All-Star games? A lot of people in baseball are sitting at home, wishing they could be where we are," Steve Avery said after the American League's 9-3 victory Tuesday.

Still, the numbers don't lie, and the AL certainly is doing a number on Cox. No manager has lost two All-Star games and two World Series in so short a time, and the failure of his Braves the last two Julys is as acute as their disappointment the last two Octobers.

Cox keeps taking his Braves to the All-Star game, and the American League keeps taking them apart.

No NL starter was ever hammered as badly as Tom Glavine was in San Diego last July, allowing four runs on seven straight hits in the first inning of the AL's 13-6 rout. Luckily for Glavine, he got the night off Tuesday.

Unfortunately for Avery and John Smoltz, they didn't.

In just 11/3 combined innings, Avery and Smoltz literally threw away whatever chance the NL had of ending the AL's six-game winning streak. Avery allowed three unearned runs in the sixth inning, and Smoltz threw a record two run-scoring wild pitches in just one-third of an inning's work.

And the NL's only two errors? They were made by Braves David Justice and Jeff Blauser.

Bob Costas isn't all smiles about the deal that will bring baseball back to NBC next season.

He's happy his network is getting the sport of his heart. He just thinks the expanded playoffs and regionalized coverage embraced by his boss are dumb ideas.

The announcer, who makes clear that he is a baseball traditionalist, spent much of an All-Star town meeting openly criticizing positions taken by NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol.

Baseball's new television contracts, which begin next season, call for the playoffs to double to eight teams, just six regular-season games each on NBC and ABC and regionalized telecasts of most playoff games.

"NBC and ABC don't even want to show a game every week," Costas said Tuesday when a fan suggested that NBC should broadcast roundtable discussions on baseball.

Costas, the moderator of the town meeting, criticized the owners' plan to have first- and second-place teams qualify for the playoffs next year. He said he fears second-place teams may beat first-place teams in short playoff series and threaten the integrity of the season.

"We play a 162-game season for a reason," Costas said.

His preference is to keep the current system. If there is to be change, Costas said he finds three divisions with one wild-card team preferable.

Costas added that baseball shouldn't allow television or the success of lengthy postseasons in other sports to dictate changes in the game.

"Baseball is baseball and I think it's almost pathetic to draw comparisons from other sports," he said.

Ebersol has said baseball needs change to appeal to younger viewers and to increase fan interest late in the season. Costas disagreed on both points.

Ebersol could not be reached for comment, NBC Sports spokesman Ed Markey said in New York.

Baseball players are considering striking later this season unless owners promise not to change work rules during the offseason, union executive director Donald Fehr said.

Just a few hours before the All-Star game, Fehr said he was increasingly impatient for a management proposal. Union officials said they will consult players in the next few weeks on various options.

The four-year collective bargaining agreement runs through Dec. 31, but owners voted 15-13 last Dec. 7 to reopen provisions dealing with free agency and salary arbitration.