Batter up!

USA Today announced plans yesterday to start a weekly baseball newspaper in April, joining the growing lineup of publications attempting to tap into the seemingly insatiable national demand for sports news and statistics, but fighting for an apparently limited number of advertising dollars.

USA Today Baseball Weekly will be the first spinoff from the national newspaper published by Rosslyn-based Gannett Co. since the ill-fated USA Today television show a couple of years ago. The tabloid publication will include box scores of Major League Baseball games, television previews, regular news digests on teams in the major and minor leagues and information aimed at the huge number of baseball fans who participate in Rotisserie, or fantasy, leagues that are based on statistical performance.

"We're pretty well-known for our baseball coverage, and I think you're going to see an extension of that," said Gene Policinski, USA Today's managing editor for sports, who was part of the team that created the publication in just a few weeks. "It's more room for features, it's more room for news."

The new publication, which will debut April 5, three days before the start of the 1991 baseball season, will cost $1 and be sold through subscription and at newsstands on Fridays. It will publish weekly during the baseball season and biweekly during the winter off-season.

Gannett officials said the publication will draw on the company's existing editorial, advertising, printing and distribution resources, keeping costs down. Policinski said the publication would hire about a dozen editorial staffers of its own, plus additional advertising and publishing staff.

Gannett officials said they expect the publication to have a circulation of 100,000 copies or so, and prototypes have had just a half-dozen advertising pages in a publication that is to have 32 to 48 pages.

"It's a very modest project, so we don't have to set very highflying goals for it," Policinski said. However, he said, "we're not going into it with the idea of losing money."

Still, USA Today Baseball Weekly will be stepping up to the plate to face a crowded field and what analysts say is a dwindling amount of potential advertising revenue.

The publication will go up against the Sporting News, the 105-year-old weekly "bible of baseball" that has been diversifying to cover other sports in the past few years since it was acquired by Times Mirror Co. It also will take on Baseball America, a fast-growing biweekly that has become popular among die-hard baseball fans for its detailed information on major league organizations and the minor leagues.

In addition, many experts believe USA Today Baseball Weekly poses a threat to the National, the struggling national sports daily newspaper that celebrates its first anniversary this week with circulation of about 250,000. The National, which competes directly with USA Today's well-regarded sports section, has been planning a weekly edition, and the Baseball Weekly may be an effort to head off that effort, publishing sources said.

John Morton, a newspaper industry analyst in Washington, said USA Today Baseball Weekly will be competing with the others for a fairly limited advertising base that is being further hurt by the slowdown in the national economy. The National in particular has had trouble finding a significant amount of advertising.

"The advertising environment right now is terrible," Morton said. "Basically, all these things feed on national advertising, and unfortunately, national advertising in a recession is one of those things that gets whacked first."

"It's too early to tell whether there's enough advertising and circulation volume to support a national vertical sports publication, especially in this environment," said Thomas Osenton, publisher of St. Louis-based Sporting News.