The return of America’s National Pastime comes on the heels of a period in history marked by uncertainty, fear, frustration and concern. The return of Major League Baseball has been a beacon of hope for sports fans that have been deprived of live sports for months.
ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball Team of Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez and Buster Olney will be calling three national MLB games in four days.
The efforts of embracing technology, combined with the skilled innovative foresight of the sports media industry has paved the way for the truncated 60 game season. Certainly, there will be some adjustments to make along the way, but therein lie the realities of delivering live sports coverage during a global health crisis.
Among the questions, issues and concerns facing broadcasters in the sports media industry regarding the coverage of the 2020 baseball season, the most prominent is what is the role for broadcasters in their coverage of baseball’s return? What is the message that is most important to communicate to fans and sports media audiences?
The ESPN broadcasting team is prepared for the challenge of adapting to the return of MLB in 2020. Mark Gross, Senior Vice President of Production and Remote Events spoke on the logistics and opportunity to embrace technology, “We have never done games from people’s homes until a few months ago. Technology has been our best friend, and keeping an open mind to everything across the board has also been our best friend.”
Gross discussed the ESPN team’s objective for broadcasting the upcoming games, “For us, the goal is always to make sure there’s no negative impact on the product for people watching at home.”
In calling the games remotely, Rodriguez expressed his gratitude in having ESPN Senior MLB Insider Buster Olney to lean on as he and Vasgersian call the games from Bristol: “For me, having Buster on location, the possibility of having him there, we’ll have some type of connection to the building, the weather, how people are feeling, kind of the temperature in the building.”
I spoke with Buster Olney, a staple of MLB coverage in his career as a writer and broadcaster, about the dynamics of the 2020 season.
“I think it’s extremely important to get the context right. This is a major sports league attempting to pull off a truncated season in the midst of a historic pandemic,” Olney says about the importance of having perspective about the season. “While I think fans would like to separate the troubling conditions from baseball and create some kind of fantasyland, the fact is that you cannot separate them, especially with players and staffers constantly forced off the field by infection and teams subject to the city, state and federal disease mandates.”
The historical significance is one area that Buster believes will be integral to the history of the sport and overall.
“When I covered the Yankees for the New York Times in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Yankees advanced to Game 7 of the World Series, the games were a brief daily distraction from the horrors of what happened. In this case, the reality is interwoven into the games—the empty stands, players and staffers sidelined, because of the social distancing and masks that affect the interaction. It’s important to tell the fans how baseball in 2020, like the rest of society, has been impacted by COVID-19.”
The ESPN team has not been cavalier in its preparation for the season; positioned with play-by-play/analyst schedules, as well phenomenal teams in place for any audio, programming or production issues that may arise.
Casey Stern, a veteran broadcaster in his roles with SiriusXM and Turner Broadcasting, took the time to tell me what he feels is most important to communicate to fans and the audience as baseball returns.
“Allow this sport to be the escape it’s always been from the realities we all face off the field both personally and together. It won’t be perfect, and in many ways will not be the same. However, it’s baseball. The crack of the bat, the unbelievable snag to start a double play, and the emotions that go with them, will all help us heal.”
World Series Champion Rob Dibble is no stranger to baseball or broadcasting, currently hosting The Rob Dibble Show weekdays on 97.9 ESPN in Hartford, CT. Dibble’s baseball career coupled with his success within the sports broadcasting industry gives him unique insight and perspective on how to cover MLB’s return.
“The media has to stop promoting fear and spread more hope. These are uncertain times, people need to see athletes setting a good example like a lot of the collegiate baseball leagues are doing, and some of the travel teams I coach.
“Maintain social distancing. Constantly washing hands. Not touching your face. Only touching your own equipment. The most important thing is that the players make sure they follow Medical Advice., limiting where they go before and after games, if they can. MLB has a chance to succeed. We can endure this Pandemic.”
The ‘triumph of the human spirit’ magic that baseball embodies has been demonstrated throughout other pivotal moments in history, as referenced by Buster Olney above. In encouraging hopeful, positive and healing coverage as the live action games return, the path is cleared of resistance fostering camaraderie between America and it’s favorite pastime.
However, the beauty of baseball and it’s universal appeal is it’s inclusive nature. Therefore, the more cynical portion of the audience will undoubtedly have concerns, questions and complaints on any adjustments to the structure and format. One of the main issues that has been dissected among the local and national sports media involves whether a 60 game stretch will be enough.
“60 games is not normal but it was the only option. MLB players always give one hundred percent and this year will be no different,” said Dibble.
“If the entire 60 games and playoffs happen, then it will go down in sports history as one of the greatest seasons under the worst circumstances. Some players will become household names. I hope and pray for an amazing few months.”
Brian Noe, veteran host on Fox Sports Radio and NBC Sports Northwest, offered an alternative perspective for hosts.
“Call me crazy, but I really don’t think much changes for a host during this unprecedented MLB season. The job still remains to find interesting angles that gain the most traction. I greatly appreciate the players going out and performing during a global pandemic. Ideally, I hope there will be many compelling stories on the field that will be the main focus. However, you can’t force it. Hosts shouldn’t try to shoehorn conversations about middle relievers into shows as if they’re in a baseball-minded city like Boston when they aren’t.
“It’s a bad approach to create topics out of respect for players that are risking their health. We’re in the ratings business, not the admiration business. We’ve heard it a million times — play the hits. The saying isn’t to talk about a utility outfielder like he’s on a LeBron level out of gratitude for MLB providing entertainment during tough times. The job is to always figure out what listeners are interested in and keep feeding them what they want. Sell what is being bought. Don’t sell what they aren’t buying — even during a pandemic.”