Top 10 reasons to watch MLB Network
In-depth coverage 24/7 makes new channel must-see TV
The MLB Network debuts at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday in about 50 million homes, by far the largest launch in cable history. It will be free on your local TV provider, easy to find and many people will stumble across it and ask the question:
Why should I watch?
The easiest answer is:
"Because 'House' and 'Rachael Ray' and 'Dancing With The Stars' and 'American Idol' and 'Oprah' and 'Family Guy' are going to talk about other things, like medicine and food and dancing and singing and books and gross stuff. The MLB Network is going to be all about Major League Baseball. Life is good, TiVo the rest."
For those adjusting to the concept of a different lifestyle in 2009, there is a more detailed response. Here are 10 reasons to watch:
1. "MLB Tonight." This is what you hang your 30 hats on. This is the main reason people will come in 2009. While baseball will fill the channel 24/7/365, it is ultimately about that "MLB Tonight" signature show that will change fan habits once play begins. "January 1 is going to be so different than June 1," analyst Harold Reynolds said. "Once we get into the season, it's going to be incredible. It's going to be the place to be."
Reynolds should know. He spent nearly a decade keeping fans company during live action as a studio analyst on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight." Now Reynolds gets to drive the new Ferrari, and you are going to see how much different it looks. John Entz is the new senior vice president of production at MLB Network, and he won a Sports Emmy for his work on "Baseball Tonight" and other ESPN shows. This will be the show you know.
2. Hall of Fame Election Special. Everyone will have to watch at 2 p.m. ET on Jan. 12, because that is where the live Induction announcement is going to happen. Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, will be reading the names on MLB Network. You know he'll say Rickey Henderson's name as a first-ballot lock. While other people are wondering if Idelson will call out any other names, what we're already wondering here is what classic Rickey games they will show that day. Insiders say to watch for cool supplementary programming like that, one of the reasons it will be harder to keep track of what Michael and Lincoln are doing on "Prison Break."
That is an example of the kind of exclusive and original programming you will see on the network. Others include the regular "Hot Stove" show, which gets everything started on opening night; "Pride and Perseverance: The Story of the Negro Leagues" airing on Jan. 19 as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the "Prime 9" regular half-hour program that breaks down the top nine all-time in a variety of baseball categories; "Cathedrals of the Game" on Monday nights to spotlight ballparks we've loved; and postseason awards shows that turn these annual announcements into true television events.
3. Familiarity and balance. Baseball fans know the talent on the MLB Network team, and if not they will soon enough. A dozen on-camera personnel have been hired so far, and a fast-growing total of 20 MLB clubs from every division so far are represented, either because those people played for them or covered them. The diverse talent comes from markets large and small, and the mass of viewers will appreciate the equal representation.
(Translation for millions of people who would rather we just say the shocking words: It won't be the Yankees and Red Sox Worldwide Broadcasting System.)
"I'm a fan of every team being represented," said Reynolds, who played for the Mariners (1983-92), Orioles (1993) and Angels (1994). "I wanted to see Rupert Jones when I was a boy. When he came out and tipped his cap, that's all I needed. He was Seattle's first big star. Everyone is like that, with their own favorite players everywhere."
4. Bright lights a decade later. It was the summer of 1998, and new MLB Network on-air reporter Trenni Kusnierek told onmilwaukee.com this story of what happened one day back then:
"When I was a part-time TV producer at Channel 12, I liked to practice reporting. Well, one day during a Brewers-Phillies game at County Stadium, I had a few minutes to practice, so a photographer and I headed to one of the entrances to the lower level seating deck. I was positioned with the game behind me. The photographer insisted on using his light, which is pretty bright. So while Jose Valentin is up to bat and I'm improvising a report, I noticed people around me starting to boo. I turned around and realized that the photographer's light was shining right in the eyes of the Phillies' pitcher and the ump stopped the game because of it. The TV cameras showing the game were trained on me as the reason for the game delay, and Matt Vasgersian was poking fun at me in the TV booth. I had no idea it would distract anyone, but there I was, accidentally stopping the game with the whole stadium booing me."
Fast forward a decade. Now there are 1,200 combined total light fixtures throughout Studio 3 and Studio 42 at the MLB Network's home in Secaucus, N.J. Now Vasgersian is a studio host. Now Kusnierek is an on-air reporter. There is a good chance someone is going to unearth that little story. (Oops, we just did, thanks to Google.)
5. Live games. The MLB Network will broadcast 26 live Major League games during the 2009 regular season, with the expectation of more to come beyond that. To warm you up for this new look, the network will televise 16 of the live World Baseball Classic games in March, with ESPN handling the rest. "The baseball junkies are really going to love it," one network spokesperson said. "If you want to see Panama vs. Venezuela at 4 in the morning, we've got you covered."
6. Tradition. The MLB Network will open with Don Larsen's 1956 World Series no-hitter for the Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first time a mass audience has seen that in more than 52 years. Guess what you are probably going to be charmed by the most? Those original commercials between innings and those announcer plugs, all signs of a halcyon time gone by. You will have Larsen and his catcher, Yogi Berra, talking about it in the studio after the game is shown. How perfect is that?
It won't be the Baseball Classic Channel, so don't expect to find a place that lives in the past. What you can expect to find is an all-hour network that embraces its past along with its present and its future, so that a 17-year-old fan with a microscopic attention span who tunes in will find a familiar high-volume, video-game world where you also learn about what got us to where we are today. MLB Network CEO Tony Petitti said it will take "six to seven years" to digitize the entire history of broadcast Major League Baseball, an indication of how serious the network is about remembering.
7. Wild Thing! Mitch Williams is back in front of everyone. You just know that one of these days, Joe Carter is going to be summoned to Studio 42's spectacular mini-scale "MLB Park" for a "recreation" of their classic confrontation. In fact, this is the official suggestion. Just one more time, Williams vs. Carter, like it was when the latter took the former deep at Toronto's SkyDome to end the 1993 World Series. There are even dugouts at Studio 42, so someone can play the part of Curt Schilling with his head covered in a towel. It would be big in Canada. Philly fans are so over it now that they've won it all that they would even watch the recreation. Al Leiter can set it all up, since he was a member of that Blue Jays club and lived the moment. Hazel Mae can call the action, since she grew up in Toronto and was a broadcaster there. Now that Williams has joined the force of analysts at MLB Network, it is surely only a matter of time.
8. The technology. We're dying to see what the studio talent will do with the Perceptive Pixel touch-screen display, which was all the rage during the presidential election coverage. CNN's John Roberts was a whiz at using it to show the live voting breakdown on Election Day. Its possibilities are endless for baseball. Imagine an MLB Network analyst showing the standings one day in September and dragging the Orioles from fourth to second while talking about how many games they would have to win to become the American League Wild Card. Imagine using it to highlight schedules and interactive ballpark seating in a show about where we love to sit. It will be a great way to compare different pitchers' release points or hitters' stances. Like everything with the MLB Network, except your new friends to get comfortable with the new wheels and then gradually open it up on the highway.
There are so many other technologies being applied by the MLB Network in new ways for baseball fans, and many of them will be captivating. For example, consider the two cameras in each ballpark that MLB Network will control from its studios. They are in the process of wiring this for each venue, so it will be gradual over year one. At 6 p.m. on a typical gameday, the network can decide to check in on batting practice at Wrigley, see Alfonso Soriano warming up and be able to bring a player like that over for a quick interview. You know how a regional network (i.e., YES or SNY or FOX Sports Midwest) will interview a star of the game after the last out? The MLB Network can have cameras positioned so they can interview a player from every team every single night and see their faces, as long as the clubs can each bring a player over.
The 300 miles of HD cable wired under the floor at MLB Network's facility is indicative of the change about to come. So will the 62 total HD video displays throughout Studio 3, and the 25-foot out-of-town scoreboard, updated in real time, in Studio 42. So will the logging system with the tapeless server storage and the ability to immediate serve up past video clips of blossoming star Joey Votto of the Reds with an 0-2 count, to show whenever he comes up with that situation again.
Everywhere you look, technological advancements will be happening, part of the roughly $50 million investment in this addition to your viewing lifestyle.
9. The total picture. Here is how Petitti responds when asked how baseball fans will use this new network in 2009: "We will be complementary to the way fans watch their local team. If you watch the [club] on your regional network, for example, we provide the national perspective. Every game has ebbs and flows. We're always going to be there."
10. What you don't know. Everybody and their sisters and brothers are sending in programming ideas to the new network. Hollywood calls all the time with script ideas. It is like this giant canvas and everyone has a paint brush. Baseball is the national pastime and therefore it will be the people's network. It is kind of like the game in general: You are going to want to watch, you know certain things to expect like a winner and a loser and the probability of nine innings, but what you don't know is how it will happen and why you will be moved.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.