So the MLB Network has launched itself. I scanned through the Comcast guide to find it and there it was, channel 5,349 or something like that (516, in fact). I am very excited. During the MLB off-season, it’s a challenge to find any baseball on TV. There is baseball chatter, hot stove excitement and what not especially online, but little footage or real conversation. The MLB Network is in good position to change that.
The network will start slow, it appears. The schedule for the next day or so includes three or four screenings of Don Larsen’s no-hitter in the World Series, with the Hot Stove show between them. It’s not the flashiest debut, but right away the programming changes the tenor of off-season baseball on television. There is a voluminous library of games in the MLB vault. They will now see the light of day, they will breathe, at a time when the old games are the best games. When the season starts again, each day’s games drown out history. In the middle of winter, history is all that we’ve got.
The great benefit of showcasing old games, in terms of the medium, is that it allows the audience to experience watching the game as it was done in the past. With poorer camera angles, black and white video, spare graphics (if any at all), the old game on TV is a chance to turn back the dial and learn how differently a fan in the older days experienced the game. This is valuable. We can appreciate what we have, and appreciate what they had, as well. I find often that I’m shocked at how good an old broadcast is, how much clearer the image appears than it seems it should.
Only a network run by baseball and committed only to baseball can get away with playing three hours of 1956-style baseball. Any risk is mitigated by the availability of the content. It surely doesn’t take much for MLB to scrape up an old broadcast, to which it owns the rights, and press play. I am glad of that, that a small viewership will not crush the content as it would a network sit-com. Let there be little risk for once.
The MLB Network has a slew of old players in their stable, as well as a young play-by-play man turned “studio host,” a few on-air reporters, and a few baseball writers. Matt Vasgersian is perhaps the most notable addition. It must have taken a lot to pull him away from a primo major league play-by-play gig to work in the studio. You may recognize Vasgersian as the play-by-play announcer on the best baseball video game ever published, MLB 08: The Show. Even in the game he is smooth and chipper, with a quick ear for nicknames and culturally acute lingo, which is a testament as much to the game developers as to the voice talent. I expect to unconsciously jam on a non-existent controller in my hands whenever I hear his voice.
Harold Reynolds will be a studio analyst. He’s a fine one, and I am glad to see him emerge from his murky scandal of a few years ago. Other former players include: Al Leiter, Barry Larkin, Dan Plesac, Joe Magrance and Mitch Williams. There are a couple of fancy studios for the regular shows, which you can read about yourself here. One studio with a desk for talking at, and a second that is a small baseball field, which will feature a strong emphasis on “demonstration” in the now well-accepted manner.
During the off-season, the primary regular show will be Hot Stove. In this I think we see shades of the online culture of minute-by-minute transaction news transferred to the traditional TV medium. ESPN, etc., clearly cover hot stove news, but this would appear to escalate the focus. MLB Network will talk only about the hot stove. This mirrors, I believe, the razor sharp focus of the online hot stove sites, like mlbtraderumors.com. Tim Dierkes, the proprietor of that site, succeeds via succintness. He lets his readers and commenters debate the moves by aggregating and presenting the latest news with objectivity. I’m going to float a balloon and suggest that Hot Stove will not do so, and that instead audiences will hear some of the same punditry that has penetrated the rest of news and sport TV. As long as it’s baseball, right?
The MLB Network will only broadcast 26 live games during the season. Fair enough, there are plenty of live games on TV in most locations. What’s missing from the palette is non-stop programming for people who like baseball in all of its forms.
One could consider the “dangers” that lurk around the network. These would include threats like it becoming a mirror image of existing baseball coverage on ESPN, etc., and the barf-inducing graphics and visual presentation that are ubiquitous. Another threat might be that it’s really boring. A third is that Yankees and Red Sox coverage will dominate. These risks are small, however, given the potential rewards.
A final thought: I don’t much care how well or poorly it goes, as long as it’s baseball.