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Wall-to-wall baseball

ESPN kicked off its expanded coverage with six hours of extra innings on June 30

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Who says lightning can’t strike twice? Not ESPN. Not on June 30. The baseball coverage on that historic night spanned some six hours. It began with the home-team New York Mets squashing the Cincinnati Reds. Then, the network jumped to the last inning of the Oakland A’s-Toronto Blue Jays game — just in time to see A’s hurler Dave Stewart finish a no-hitter. And that was just an appetizer for what turned out to be the main course: another no-hitter, this one by Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals — covered by ESPN from the first pitch. It was the first time two no-hitters had been thrown on the same day since Hippo Vaughn and Fred Toney accomplished that feat in 1917 — long before the dawn of cable, or of TV itself.

As if the no-hitters weren’t enough, ESPN’s night also included highlights from every other contest on the Major League schedule. When the marathon finally ended at 1:23 the next morning, network announcer John Saunders, who had anchored the coverage from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., had some crowing to do. ”We are the network of the no-hitter,” an elated Saunders proclaimed.

This year, for the first time, ESPN also is the network of the toe-to-toe slugfest, the pitching duel, and the rain delay. If it’s round and wears horsehide, ESPN has a camera focused on it. The cable service is covering Major League baseball this year as the sport has never been covered by television before — 161 games, more than five times as many as any network has ever carried. Fans all over the country are getting a chance to see six complete games a week, each one crammed with highlights from other contests. ESPN also switches from one live game to another when something monumental is about to happen, as when Rickey Henderson broke the American League stolen- base record on May 29. That’s not all, sports fans: Baseball Tonight, a daily half-hour show hosted by Saunders and veteran TV journalist Dave Marash, adds statistical minutiae, deep analysis, and behind-the-scenes reporting to the mix. ”Our audience constantly wants to be pushed in its level of understanding,” says Jed Drake, coordinating producer of ESPN’s game telecasts, ”and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

To keep all those balls in the air, 11-year-old ESPN has strengthened its bench considerably. The network hired 14 new announcers, including Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who had done games for ABC; Ray Knight, the former New York Mets third baseman (and MVP of the ’86 World Series); and Mike Lupica, a columnist for the sports daily The National. On top of these personnel costs, ESPN is spending $400 million for four years of cable rights. This year, it will lose money on baseball, and so far the ratings are mildly disappointing. The games have been seen in an average of 1.2 million homes, about 40 percent below ESPN’s preseason estimates.

The highest ratings for ESPN’s games have come on Sunday nights, when the network has an ex on Major League ball. ESPN is, literally, the only game in town all across the country. A recent telecast from Milwaukee shows just how much planning and effort goes into one of ESPN’s Sunday games. The equipment trucks arrive two days before the Toronto Blue Jays-Milwaukee Brewers contest and the production staff begins to hook all the gear together. On Saturday cameras start to go into place. Director Marc Payton, who also does ESPN’s Sunday-night NFL games, spends about 30 minutes that afternoon customizing one graphic with a beer mug in honor of host city Milwaukee. That evening, he and producer Bruce Connal — an ESPN veteran who has worked on the College World Series, tennis, and hockey — get to know the two teams by watching them play from the press box. They’re joined for a few innings by Joe Morgan, a Hall of Fame second baseman who is the Sunday game analyst.

On Sunday morning, the senior production people meet for a strategy session in Connal’s downtown hotel room. Also present are Morgan and Jon Miller, the radio voice of the Baltimore Orioles as well as ESPN’s play-by-play man on Sunday. Morgan talks about a recent upswing in the number of home runs being hit. ”The ball is juiced,” Morgan says in a pinched voice. ”I guarantee it.” The burly Miller quickly disagrees. ”Every time somebody does something extraordinary,” he booms, ”they say they’re juicing the ball.” Connal doesn’t try to smooth over the disagreement, but encourages the two announcers to continue their argument on the air: ”I think this is good,” he says. ”It’s point, counterpoint.”

Once the game begins, the 10 camera operators scattered around the park begin to work in a controlled rush. Most of them have set assignments — the ”low third” cameraman, located next to the dugout on the third-base side, must shoot the left-handed batters at the plate — but they’re also encouraged to improvise. Kim Elston, in the upper deck above first base, is supposed to deliver tight shots of fielding plays, which means he has to focus his camera where the ball is going — before it gets there. ”You’ve got to play all nine positions in your mind,” he explains, ”and know how to anticipate.”

Just outside the stadium, director Payton and producer Connal sit at the main control board at one end of a semi-trailer and stare intently at the 42 TV monitors that show everything that’s happening. Payton decides which image is sent to Bristol from one moment to the next, and his concentration never breaks. When something exciting happens, his directions come in a blur. In the top half of the fourth, when the Jays explode for 10 runs — the worst inning in Brewers history — Payton frequently has time only to shout the numbers of the cameras he wants: ”1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 3, 1, 3, 5, 1, 2.”

The contest ends at 10:28 p.m., but it ain’t over till it’s over for the ESPN crew. All the equipment has to be packed back into the trucks. The producer has to head back to Bristol to start preparing for next week’s telecast. ESPN has 16 more weeks in its baseball marathon, nearly 100 more contests to cover. And through the first half of its rookie season, ESPN has been major league all the way.

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