When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. Now that I am a man, many of my friends would say, not much has changed. One thing I knew, though, way back in 1971, was that major league baseball needed its own TV network. Finally, thirty-eight years later, MLB Network has been launched, out of the former CNBC broadcast studios in Secaucus, New Jersey.
My childish reasoning went thusly: baseball is America's pastime. Americans deserve a place to watch baseball whenever they wanted to. When I learned that Japan had its own professional baseball leagues, I got out my time zone calculator and amateur network programming erasable board. I figured that, if we could convince the Japanese to play at least one game every day at 1pm, 4pm and 7pm their time (or 11pm, 2am and 5am Eastern time), and we did the same, we'd have time for an hour-long wrap-up show every night at 10pm, and five hours every day for talk shows, previews, or maybe a rebroadcast of the best game of the previous 24 hours. I know, I left out late starts on the West Coast. So sue me; I was 11 years old.
This brainstorm (okay, maybe a puddle) came before anyone had ever heard of HBO, ESPN, or any of the other professional sports TV networks. But it made an intuitive sense to me. Now, baseball is finally cashing in on that vault full of expressed written consents, and rang in 2009 with a new basic cable network. MLB Network might be a bigger deal to those of us Mets fans outside the metro New York area, since we don't have regular access to SNY or the local papers. And while it's unfair to judge a new broadcasting entity on its first five days, let's do just that.
The network's "Studio 3", the current home of their Hot Stove program, and future home of MLB Tonight once the season begins, could be mistaken for an ESPN SportsCenter studio. The Hot Stove crew, including former players Harold Reynolds, Joe Magrane, and Mitch Williams, are joined by veteran play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian. The team is still learning each others' rhythm, and seemed to take far too long to make the same point multiple times. Magrane also pronounced new Met J.J. Putz's name incorrectly. Slow down, Joe. There'll be plenty of time for Mets fans to change that pronunciation if necessary. Omar Minaya was a guest on Hot Stove over the weekend, and acquitted himself well, without gushing too much over the team's prospects of signing Derek Lowe.
"Studio 42" is a mini-replica baseball field, where Reynolds can bounce a ball off the wall with guests such as Marlins center fielder Cameron Maybin, who caught the last ball ever hit in Shea Stadium history. According to a network spokesman, both studios are situated over more than 300 miles of broadcast cables and wires. The flooring under the tiles must look like a Jack Bauer nightmare.
An off-season crawl/ticker can be problematic, but MLB Network's gone with running team-by-team updates of who's new and who's gone, as well as who's still available at each position on the free-agent market. During spring training, it'll be time for 30 clubs in 30 days, as they work up an hour-long special on each club. Once the season starts, there'll be plenty of scores and transactions to report, though they'll only be airing 26 regular-season game broadcasts all year long. They will, however, have two ballpark cameras in each stadium, which MLB Tonight will use to set the scene for each night's action. If it's done right, this could change the way baseball fans watch baseball. If not, they run the very real risk of being SportsCenter Light in the evenings, and ESPN Classic Light the rest of the week.
On their sign-on day, the network played the broadcast of Don Larsen's World Series perfect game against the Dodgers, with commentary from Larsen and Yogi Berra with Bob Costas moderating. It peppered the weekend following with complete broadcasts of 2008 post-season games, past World Series Highlights, and shows like Red Sox Memories. That last program featured a control room glitch, as the same segment aired twice in a row, complete with opening not-for-broadcast slate. It looked messy, but they're still learning this TV thing.
As a hard-core baseball fan, who gets annoyed when I can't get a score update during pro football and college basketball seasons, I'm willing to cut them some slack. A crack fiend can't complain that his daily fix isn't the best quality he's ever had, so neither will I. However, in these tough economic times, MLB Network won't have a second chance to make a first impression. In my bill-paying business of radio, the super-listener is called a P1, and stations gear their programming to super-serve that small but loyal slice of listeners. As a basic cable niche station, though, MLB Network will have to serve more than just us baseball nuts if it's going to succeed. It would also be an excellent idea for MLB Network to get input from the best baseball bloggers in each baseball market on an ongoing basis. Here's hoping they have that forethought.
Every new network has its ramp-up period, especially with advertisers. The only sponsors I saw out of the gate, besides promos for the mlb.com store, were for Budweiser and Viagra, both squarely within that male sports fan demographic. Heck, even Mike's Mets has more impressive banner ads (see top of your computer screen for example). But when ESPN first signed on back in the day, they only had one major advertiser. Fortunately for them, it was Anheuser Busch. Once the network took off, the revenue started to roll in. MLB Network is hoping the same will hold true for them. Just remember, I thought of the idea first.