Friday, January 9, 2009

The MLB Network Launches, and, So Far, It's an All-Star

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Baseball may be the third one onto the field of the major sports leagues launching signature cable networks, but they may just be playing the game the best.

On January 1, the MLB Network launched with its "Hot Stove" studio show, followed by the original broadcast of Don Larsen's perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series (for the first time on television since that day), complete with the original commercials and commentary and in-studio interviews with Larsen and his catcher, Yogi Berra. Since then, the network has continued to follow the same model, mixing "Hot Stove" with, mainly, rebroadcasts of important games and other highlight/retrospective-type programming.

Simply put, in nearly every way, MLB has gotten it right. The NFL shot itself in the foot by failing to come to a deal with some major cable operators, leaving most Americans with no way to get the NFL Network. As for the NBA, if not for Bill Simmons's obsession in his columns with a studio show featuring Gary Payton and Chris Webber, I'm not sure if I would even know that NBA TV existed. I'm positive that I don't know if it's even available on my cable package. (In the interest of full disclosure, of the four major sports, basketball is my least favorite.)

So while the MLB Network may be a bit of a Johnny-Bench-come-lately, baseball gets full credit for doing it right. Maybe they learned by watching the ups and downs of the NFL Network (including the idea of allowing Bryant Gumble to do play-by-play on games) and NBA TV. MLB brought in veteran television wizard Tony Petitti (who was instrumental in the formation of the BCS) from CBS to run the whole thing, and the experience he brings is evident in every aspect of the venture.

The "Hot Stove" show seems to be the heart and soul of the network, as when the season begins, it will morph into a highlights program that may just be a must-see for baseball fans. In addition to highlights and interviews, the show will look in live on key moments of games in progress. The "Hot Stove" is broadcast out of a vast, state-of-the-art series of studios named for famous players (like Studio 42 for Jackie Robinson, which features a large baseball diamond on which the analysts can demonstrate plays, and Studio 3, for Babe Ruth). The mere visual scope of the set-up surpasses anything I've seen on network television. It's not just flashier, which would be easy to do, but also more interesting, putting the analysts and guests in positions that facilitate the viewing experience.

The talent on the show is fine, but as time goes on, I'm sure Petitti and his crew will find everyone's niche and move people around accordingly until the blend is right. "Hot Stove" definitely has succumbed to the modern crutch of sports producers to throw as many analysts as possible into the studio until the audience is overrun by talking heads. In addition to hosts Matt Vasgersian, Victor Rojas (for you old-timers out there, he's Cookie's son) and Greg Amsinger, as well as reporters Hazel Mae and Trenni Kusnierek, the list of ex-ballplayer analysts is lenghty: Harold Reynolds (who seems to be the lead analyst), Al Leiter, Barry Larkin, Mitch Williams, Dan Plesac and Joe Magrane. Plus, Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated is the resident reporter on staff. If you're counting, that's enough people to field a baseball team for a game and still have some subs on the bench. They all don't appear at once, of course, taking turns night by night, but if feels that way sometimes.

Vasgersian, the lead host, is fine, if a bit bland. Mae and Kusnierek are solid, too. The analysts are mostly on the new side, with a couple of veterans mixed in. The hiring of Reynolds was curious, and not just because he left ESPN under the cloud of a sexual harassment allegation. The problem with Reynolds is that he suffers from a mild (repeat, mild) case of Joe Morgan Syndrome (is it something about diminutive second basemen?), which causes the dual symptoms of thinking you know everything because you played the game and making ridiculous statements with conviction as if saying them strongly will make the nonsense seem to make sense. To me, Reynolds is the only real misstep the network made with "Hot Stove."

Leiter is the best of the bunch, which surprised me a bit, because I'm luke-warm on him as a game broadcaster (he works Yankee games for YES). He's more effective in the studio, where, frankly, he doesn't have to fill as much time. His analysis of baseball matters is sharp, his opinions are well-founded, and his on-air presence is more confident than cocky. He also has a sly sense of humor. Williams was better than I expected, and I liked Larkin's ability to communicate, although I found his opinions to be a bit wacky at times. Magrane, a veteran of network broadcasts, is polished and professional, if not spectacular. The on-air crew has a lot of potential. It may lack the pure star power of the network shows, but for real baseball fans, that might actually be a good thing.

In the week or so since the MLB Network launched, I have been impressed with the caliber and volume of guests on the "Hot Stove" show, ranging from the inspired (Ken Burns talking about the update of his baseball documentary) to the mundane (Scott Boras planting propaganda about, er, I mean discussing, his free agent clients).

And based on how the network handled the show about Larsen's perfect game, I wouldn't be surprised if some special programs await us down the road. Bob Costas was tapped to host the show, and he was in his element, interviewing Larsen and Berra and commenting now and again about the game, giving perspective on everything from the players to the announcers. Larsen and Berra have been interviewed endlessly about that day in 1956, and Costas didn't really break any new ground, but what he did brilliantly was keep the conversation to the relevant moments of the game, so that it added to the drama. And the producers smartly didn't go back to the studio after every half inning, letting the game flow without the constant interruptions.

Obviously, the main appeal was watching one of the greatest games in baseball history (in addition to Larsen's perfect game, his opponent, 39-year-old Sal Maglie, threw a gem, giving up only two runs and five hits, one of the runs coming on a Mickey Mantle homer). But the icing on the cake was the experience of watching a game as it was viewed in 1956. A daytime World Series game, no center field camera, minimal graphics, and only a single announcer working without an analyst (Yankees legend Mel Allen the first half of the game, Dodgers legend Vin Scully the second half). The old Yankee Stadium was cavernous (with the three monuments on the field in deep center). The players tended to be smaller and less fit than many of the modern athletes, and the crowd consisted mainly of men in suits and fedoras. But, amazingly, baseball is baseball, and as much as everything changed around it, the playing of the game itself -- and the drama of watching -- remains essentially the same. Oh, and the commercials were entertaining. All but one were for Gillette razors, and each one was different, some with animations, some with ballplayer endorsements, and some with the announcers chiming in. They were quaint by modern standards, but they also provided an interesting little peak at life in 1956.

The MLB Network's airing of the Larsen game is about as good as baseball on television gets. The network may not have thrown a perfect game in its first week, but it definitely has put up a quality start. So while the NFL Network airs for the 14 people who get it, and NBA TV plays hide-and-go-seek on the channel lineup, the MLB Network has jumped over both of them, setting the pace for what a league's network should be doing. If you're a baseball fan, the network will probably become a must-see for you, if it hasn't already.