I don’t know if I’ve ever sat still and watched an entire episode of Baseball Tonight before. But on the 4th of July, at midnight, when I probably should have been out somewhere watching colorized, simulated cannonfire, I decided to do just that. These are my notes from that hour. Humble nod to Chuck Klosterman, who once in a fit of apparent insanity clearly watched 24 hours of VH1 Classic.
11:56 p.m. – Who else is watching Baseball Tonight at midnight on American Birthday: 2009? And of this minuscule party, what percentage is some number of sheets to the wind right now, prone on the couch with a hand on the carpet to stop the spins, hoping that some baseball highlights will usher them into a needed sleep? Will the anchors slow down their delivery a few beats per minute, to cater to this impaired demographic? Slightly unrelated inquiry: What would Peter Gammons be like drunk? I’m guessing the trade rumors and word-of-mouth insights would flow unfiltered, one insider baseball Jägerbomb after another, blowing the minds of anyone within a fifteen-foot circumference.
11:58 p.m. – I’ve tuned in at the conclusion of Sportscenter. First, SC undercuts the impact of the show that’s on in two minutes by offering a quick-burst highlight package of a few games, stuffing them into the broadcast in the waning minutes. Then it’s some Rick Reilly-style closing coverage of the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. The anchors went to fade-out by quizzing each other about hot dogs: “How many hot dogs could you eat?” Awkward search for a hilarious reply. “Ever been to Coney Island?” Nope. “Crunch time? This is MUNCH time.” “Did you know that 26 million hot dogs get eaten at baseball games every year?” And scene.
12:00 a.m. – The opening images of your Baseball Tonight feature Lou Gehrig’s heart-rending speech, being celebrated in MLB games across the country. BBTN shows a clip of the speech, but rather than simply showing it, they display it on a sort of simulated screen within a screen, as though the Gehrig speech was showing at a drive-in, and BBTN dispatched a cameraman to film it. Such is the nature of ESPN highlights programming these days, that they very badly want viewers to remember that they are watching something, that a major production is underway, that this is a Pretty Big Deal here. The Gehrig speech is always stirring, though, in a way the antithesis of the popping madness of the BBTN intro.
12:01 a.m. – The crew for this doubtless relatively unpopular time slot include anchor on the left Steve Berthiaume, in the middle former infielder Eric Young, and on your right former infielder Fernando Vina. Absent are the familiar BBTN heads, pro’s pro Karl Ravech, cantankerous defender of the Old Manner John Kruk, and the sober pro’s pro Peter Gammons. A meat sandwich on a pro’s pro bun. I don’t mean to suggest that Kruk is not professional–it’s a hard job and not anyone can do it–but he does seem to relish the role of the common man, as baseball’s most recent incarnation of the old archetype, the hidden hope that your average Jack might hide within him a formidable batting average.
Berthiaume strikes me as one grain in the sandstorm of rotating SC anchors. He hasn’t left me with an indelible impression. Eric Young, as a commentator, has a shrill voice and much enthusiasm, which I can’t fault. Vina’s facial hair makes me uncomfortable, and his style on TV is the same as it was on the field: serviceable, but a little stiff.
12:04 a.m. – Every MLB player and coach is wearing the special red USA baseball cap, regardless of team. An MLB.com article has this to say about it: “This promises to be the most patriotic display of an American baseball cap since Bruce Springsteen stuffed a red one into the back pocket of his blue jeans on the cover of his “Born in the U.S.A.” album nearly a quarter-century ago.” Which part of the titular ballad of a Vietnam vet do you think they have in mind? Is it: “Sent me off to Vietnam / To go and kill the yellow man”? Or perhaps: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary / Out by the gas fires of the refinery / I’m ten years down the road / Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go”? Maybe it was the penultimate refrain, which could just as easily describe the 2009 seasons of MLB veterans like Magglio Ordonez, Chien-Ming Wang or Jason Giambi: “I’m a long gone Daddy in the U.S.A.”
12:08 a.m. – In the first true batch of highlights, EY heralds Manny Ramirez’s first home run back from his hiatus with a cry of “souvenir city!” without any hint of irony. Vina praises his hustle, especially in the field. A Joe Torre interview quiets the BBTN ecstasy for a moment with a calm, reasoned post-game interview before the gang launches back into praise for Manny’s timing, and notes his standing on the all-time home run list (tied with Jimmie Foxx for 16th). Quoth one of them: “He is one of the greatest hitters of all time, that’s why we keep bringing this up.” I’m still waiting for the PED sideswipe (it will not arrive).
12:09 a.m. – The answer is no, the anchors do not augment the pace of their presentation for the drunk.
There’s an interesting dynamic on this and other MLB highlight shows, namely the MLB Network’s. The anchorman does what you’d consider to be traditional SC-style rundown that we’ve seen for years. The commentators, meanwhile–the retired pro ballplayer types–verbally hop around this way and that, injecting their hasty insights around the linear narrative of the anchor.
12:12 a.m. – Some Red Sox highlights. Berthiaume can’t believe what a bad inning Takashi Saito had. He really can’t believe it. His disbelief is fervent. One of them says, AAARrrdsma, pirate-style. Honestly, I thought Berthiaume would be the neutral one, the straight man, but he’s going on and on about Takashi-friend.
12:20 a.m. – Time for a rundown of the latest Mets melt-down, Independence Day Edition. Berthiaume is equally amazed at the suckiness of the Mets defense. “They’re throwing it all over the field here! This is Bad News Bears stuff!” Berthiaume is really doing a lot of editorializing here for the host-type moderator guy. “Howard is really becoming a better defensive first baseman.” He doesn’t seem content to let EY and Vina do the Little League-coach style barking.
Feature alert! They just froze a shot of Mets catcher Omir Santos. They zoomed in on his eyeballs, to somehow illustrate that he took his eyes off of a pop-up behind the plate. “Look at his eyes!” Vina’s shouting. “Where are his eyes?” The evidence as to the actual focus of Santos’ gaze is certainly not as cut-and-dry as Vina purports. The zoomed-in eyes are grainy and pixelated. Did I inadvertently flip over to Cheaters? I’m a little uncomfortable.
12:27 a.m. – SC commercials really are as funny now as they always have been. Who writes these?
12:32 a.m. – Tigers and Twins. Justin Morneau has a Fred McGriff-style helicopter follow through. Now there’s a great player that I NEVER see play. Morneau, ripping into another pitch. He literally hits exactly like the Crime Dog, from the stillness of his hands to the pace and follow-through of the swing. One reference I found to this phenomenon comes in a NYTimes piece on the batting stance guy, Gar Ryness: “In [Ryness] parlance, the former star Fred McGriff “Morneau’d it” at the end of his swing by curling his bat over his head in the style of Justin Morneau, the current Twins first baseman.” Why on earth McGriff Morneaus it, rather than Morneau McGriffing it, is something I will never Morneau.
12:36 a.m. – A new skill for the new baseball fan is to pick your fantasy team members out of the endless barrage of highlights. They pop out from the crowd like ex-girlfriends from a high school yearbook. For me, Edwin Jackson catches my eye, and Mike Napoli, etc., for no good reason beyond the fantasy angle.
12:39 a.m. – White Sox rookie Gordon Beckham face-plants on a headfirst slide into second, where his hands get caught on the dirt and no longer let him glide like Rickey along the surface of the dirt. I’m glad to know that what humiliated me as a 14-year-old can happen to a pro, albeit a youngster. Beckham then gets clocked by a baserunner, then he hits a homer. This after maybe 350 at bats in the minors.
12:41 a.m. – I am going strong. I’m not bored at all, and my general compulsion to change channels every 30 seconds remains at bay. There’s a feeling of satisfaction from actually watching the show, the way you would, say, an hour-long drama. I’m so used to the low commitment threshold of BBTN that this marriage is refreshingly stable. I don’t need to change channels, I’m solid. My dog, conversely, is dead asleep on the bed, dreaming about Fernando Vina’s goatee.
12:42 a.m. – A special feature! With the crack crew of former middle infielders at their disposal, the BBTN team will focus on the architecture of the 5-4-3 double play. Third-to-second-to-first. It’s about time some old jocks took to the simulation field. Oddly, EY and Berthiaume opt to leave their jackets on. Vina is the only one sans his coat, and as such he looks like he poorly judged his present company, like the kid who wears khakis and penny loafers to the pool party.
The demo was solid, a lot of talk about footwork. EY really winged the ball hard to Vina, though they were no more than ten feet apart. But Vina grabbed the screamer like it was nothing and finished off his phantom double whammy. Vina, having fake-doubled him off of fake-second base, real slaps Berthiaume on the ass and says, “thanks for coming.”
12:47 – A good way to keep me glued to BBTN: tease me with upcoming clips of Tim Lincecum throwing seven innings of sweetness.
12:52 – The episode starts to wind down with an array of summary-type segments, like That’s Nasty, in which they go through the strikeout hammers of the day (Timmy’s got a few of them), oohing and ahhing at the curveballs and the high and tight fastballs and what not. Then it’s on to Touch ‘Em All, with some impressive home runs of the day, and finally it’s the Web Gems, where BBTN now puts much of its branding stock. They keep score, now, which is charming while at the same time an empty sort of pleasure. A single great play is fine for TV, but it overlooks much of our baseball education of the past 5-10 years, that one great play does not make a great player. Add enough of them up, I suppose you’ve got something. But anyhow, it’s fun, and maybe I’m just getting a little melancholy as these wrap-ups portend the end of an era, the end of an hour.
12:59 – There you have it. I barely registered the hour, it flew by. Soon the dolphin-sounds that announce the beginning of SC will ring out in the galactic void of the transitional graphics. Steve, EY, Fernando, I can’t promise the same attentions ever again, but on this night, my hour was yours.