ESPN expands its baseball coverage -- The sports channel plans on airing close to 300 games this season

For many years, network baseball coverage was a Saturday-afternoon deal, low- key days with Vin Scully and Tony Kubek on NBC.

Not this season. This season will be wall-to-wall baseball. ESPN, the cable sports channel, will carry more than 170 broadcasts — which, by switching back and forth between various stadiums, will cover some 300 games. For baseball fans, these numbers are nirvana — a summertime sports page come to life. All this, plus Baseball Tonight, a daily news and feature show.

(As for traditional network coverage, CBS will show 16 games on weekend afternoons this season, starting April 14, plus the All-Star Game, playoffs, and the World Series.)

ESPN will begin its baseball season when Major League Baseball does: on Opening Day (Monday, April 9).

From then on, there will be ESPN games on Sundays, Tuesdays (doubleheaders), Wednesdays, and Fridays (more doubleheaders). ESPN has set its schedule for Sunday-night games for the season; the weeknight games will be chosen up to one week ahead, which will allow the network to pick what look to be the most competitive matchups. ESPN says every major league team will show up at least twice on the schedule.

How will ESPN manage all this? In its four-year, $400-million deal with Major League Baseball, signed early last year, ESPN has been given permission to do what NBC and the teams’ local TV stations never could: show highlights from or cut live to any other game in progress. ESPN will cut away to show important plays from other games, even between pitches, in the ”whiparound” style it featured in covering the NCAA basketball tournament for the past decade. All games will be updated every half-inning. ESPN will have cameras and announcers at two games on weekdays; it will show action from other games via satellite transmission.

”If anything happens anywhere in baseball, we’re going to bring it out of the sky and show it to you,” says Eric Schoenfeld, coordinating producer of Baseball Tonight.

ESPN went through a dry run of this whirlwind approach last summer, when baseball allowed ESPN’s announcers and technicians to produce ”dummy” coverage. But doing it for real four nights a week is a little different. And the network has had a reduced spring-training schedule to warm up with.

So there may well be some glitches. ”This project will stretch, and, at times, severely test the fortitude of all those who will be involved,” says Jed Drake, coordinating producer of ESPN’s games.

ESPN’s goal is to make its showcase Sunday-night coverage a habit in homes with cable TV, much as it has done with its Sunday-night NFL games. On Sunday nights, the ESPN game almost always will be the only TV game available in the country.

What viewers will see on these games are features such as the camera isolating on particular players — if someone’s in a slump, ESPN will try to show the mechanics of why. Super Slo-Mo cameras will give viewers good angles on plays at first and third base. (Networks have provided this sort of coverage during playoffs, the World Series, and All-Star games, but ESPN is attempting to do it on an everyday basis.)

ESPN’s announcers for the Sunday-night games will be Jon Miller, radio voice of the Baltimore Orioles, and former Cincinnati Reds star second baseman Joe Morgan. The network’s lineup of talent for the weeknight games will include Chris Berman, the quip-happy host of ESPN’s NFL GameDay and NFL PrimeTime; Jim Palmer, former Orioles pitcher and ABC announcer; and Mike Lupica, a columnist for The National.

ESPN executives looked at hundreds of audition tapes in assembling that roster; most of the applicants were experienced broadcasters. There was one notable exception — a radio announcer for a minor-league team who broadcasts some games the way Ronald ”Dutch” Reagan did in Iowa in the 1930s. This announcer covers the games by phone (via reports from a benchwarmer on the line) and re-creates the action as if he were there live.

The guy didn’t get hired, but a producer says ESPN may well do a story about him. When a network is offering more than 300 games and a daily baseball show, a lot of bases are going to get covered.