Superstition' City

Tim Flanigan makes $6 an hour building grain bins in Storm Lake, Iowa, and most days after work he dons his Atlanta Braves batting helmet, orders a beer and plops down with the regulars at Puff's White Cap Inn to root for Storm Lake's team, the Atlanta Braves, via cable TV.

"You can get the Chicago Cubs on cable TV, but they're losers," says Flanigan, 25, warming up a bar stool for a long baseball weekend.

"We're tired of losers. At least when the Braves were losing, they weren't making a lot of errors. They were trying to win.

"And now that they're in the playoffs, it gives you something good to talk to your neighbor about. I wish I could be in Atlanta, but I can't get off work to drive 1,500 miles."

Storm Lake used to be Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals country. But when the Braves were riding high this season, a billboard in Storm Lake (pop. 7,000) proclaimed, "The Braves Are Number One in Storm Lake, Too."

Indeed, as the roller-coaster Braves fight the Cardinals for the National League pennant, there is World Series fever not only on Peachtree Street, but in Storm Lake; Valdez, Alaska; Hilo, Hawaii; Montgomery, Ala., and all across the hinterland, which has fallen for the Atlanta Braves as the only game in town.

It is a high-tech romance, spawned by the video magic of Ted Turner, who owns both the Braves and "Superstation" WTBS, which beams Bob Horner and Dale Murphy and Phil Niekro into 22 million homes in 50 states and Puerto Rico.

The Cubs and the New York Mets go out via their cable channels, but don't begin to rival the Braves' heartland demographics.

Turner PR men are fond of crowing about the phenomenon of the Braves as "America's Team."

They point out that Braves announcers are deluged with fan mail from places like Jackson, Wyo., and that the front office switchboard lit up with boosters' calls from 17 states during an early 13-game winning streak.

At least 7,000 people flew to Atlanta this season for a Braves weekend hotel-game package advertised over WTBS.

Team photographs are said to be hanging in a brothel in Reno.

And four towns have adopted the Braves as their home team, including Danville, Va., where readers of a local newspaper voted the team their favorite major league franchise.

"It's the magic of Ted Turner," says Register editor Bill Hall, a fallen-away Yankees fan whose sports staff keeps Danville up to date on Braves games.

"He beamed the Braves up here and totally hypnotized our town. You hear people all over town buzzing about the Braves."

From Wilson, Wyo., Elisa Hubbs writes to the home office in Atlanta: "Win or lose, the Braves will always be my team . . . . I'm tired of seeing Dodger's bumper stickers on cars around here. We love you in Wyoming!"

In reply, Braves management dispatched a bumper sticker.

In out-of-the-way places like Valdez, Alaska, Braves games are one of the few diversions. At the Totem Inn, regulars have erected a Braves scoreboard over the bar, chartered the Nanook Chapter of the Braves Fan Club and anted up to buy a wide-screen TV to watch a team whose hometown is 3,000 miles away.

By no means have the Braves been forgotten back home. In the last week of the regular season, it seemed as if half the city played hooky after staying up late to watch the Braves' battles in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Streets are virtually deserted during broadcasts, and hysteria simmers in bars like Harrisons, where real estate man Ed Jelks, 41, once used to beg friends to go with him to the games.

"They laughed at me," he says. "Now they are begging." (He has season tickets and bloodshot eyes--too much Braves-watching, too little sleep.)

"Nothing beats a winning ballclub like a winning ballclub," gloats Robert Wussler, president of Turner Broadcasting, whose sour earnings are expected to get a shot in the arm next year, partly from doubling fees for advertising on Braves' telecasts (from $4,500 to $9,000 for a 30-second spot). Such a rate hike was made possible by a jump in viewers from one million to two million a game.

Turner lost his bid last week to telecast the post-season games to his cable viewers, after a federal judge ruled that the rights of playoff teams to use ABC-TV's feed did not extend to WTBS.

But "Terrible Ted" has other franchise owners fretting that Braves inroads into their backyards via cable TV may keep fans away from their ballparks. For many teams, ticket sales are the No. 1 revenue producer.

It is the almost cult-like devotion of video fans that frightens rival club owners.

Even mournful Orioles fans in Poor Robert's Bar in Washington, D.C., got on the Braves' bandwagon last week after their dream went sour.

All season long, Bobby Abbo, 37, owner of the Connecticut Avenue pub, prepared patrons for the worst by serving up the Braves via a special WTBS licensing deal and a satellite dish out back.

"At first, Orioles fans didn't want to hear about anyone else," he said. "But they're switching to Atlanta because they watched them on cable all summer. After all, we're not a neutral country like Switzerland. This is America. You got to pick sides. You got to come down somewhere."