To watch ESPN's presentation of Spring Training baseball was to get an optimistic glance into the potential near-future. During a Tampa Bay-Boston game earlier this month, the veteran team of Karl Ravech, Eduardo Perez and Tim Kurkjian juggled an impressive number of moving parts — all from far-flung, off-site locations.
A miked-up Brett Phillips provided insight and commentary from his position in centerfield, bringing the audience onto the playing surface and into a player's mind. The access seems helpful in drawing in new viewers and using player personalities as a building block.
The crew shared an emotional segment with Rio Gomez, son of their late colleague Pedro, while walking the fine line such sensitive interviews require.
There was a different FaceTime guest each inning beaming in from the stands, a parked car, and even the dugout. The connectivity was present and authentic and complementary to the actual game on the field. And while it wasn't an exact blueprint for what ESPN will do during its regular-season games this year, it's certainly a glimpse of what's possible today and what sensibilities are being explored for the future.
Consternation about the waxing or waning popularity of the sport is as American as Opening Day and apple pie. Growing the base of support is good for all parties. But to speak the language and foster an environment for new fans and diehards alike is a challenge. In talking to Ravech, the echoes of some deeply considered goals and convictions about the upcoming season reverberated.
"When we speak to those guys it's a reminder that those people out there playing the games are people," he said, reflecting on in-game access. "They're not robots and and as much as we like to apply numbers and analytics, they are way more than spin rate and exit velocity and WAR."
Getting full sign-off from the MLBPA for the increased in-game access in meaningful contests is a high hurdle to clear. The timetable is a bit of a moving target right now. Concerns over an embarrassing hot-mike situation and potential problems over splitting focus are real, yet certainly addressable and rectifiable. Add in broadcast partners' willingness to make it a totally voluntary exercise and there's good reason for hope that it becomes a staple.
"There are clearly players who are more comfortable with it," Ravech added. "We all need to respect it and understand it. It's specific to the player. Just imagine yourself in a classroom. There are outgoing kids and then there are those who are quiet."
One of the more welcome trends in televised broadcasts is to lean into conversation. To not be beholden to the breathless updates of action visible on screen. It's a narrative form, and one tied to the deepest core of the sport. It's been fulfilling to listen as broadcasters are given more room to operate creatively and the end result is the impression they're having more fun exploring the space.
"Storytelling during baseball games has always been around since the first broadcasts, whether that was radio or television," Ravech observed. "I've never gone to a baseball game and not had conversations about things that have nothing to do with baseball during the game. It's important to think about all those people in the stands and what those conversations are. The goal this year is going to be to inform people, to educate people and first and foremost entertain people. We have as good a team as there is at doing that."
In a world where experience has become an almost dirty word, this particular group has plenty to draw on and isn't afraid of relying on it. Or relying on the bedrock of trust that's set over time like a block of limestone. This is a crew that would rather fail trying something different than succeed without pushing themselves. To hear Ravech tell it, that trust fosters the ability to disagree. "That's what a baseball clubhouse is like," he said. "That can be television magic."
The longtime broadcaster was quick to credit producer Andy Jacobson for his willingness to go down unexpected hallways and open new doors, crediting him for knowing when to ease up on the brake so ideas can be explored, not stifled.
Necessity being the catalyst of invention, last year's unorthodox baseball season, which began with the network experimenting with Korean Baseball Organization games at pre-dawn hours and culminated with a 60-game sprint to the postseason, presented opportunity to think outside the box or reconsider long-standing customs.
ESPN's fantastic commitment to adjusting and experimenting with those games halfway around the world led to some interesting discoveries. Getting the sound exactly right and capturing the excitement of the ballpark — from the smells of the concourse to unpredictability of the stands — was a lesson in trial and error. And while stadiums will be full to various degrees this summer, it may feel like business as usual in some regions while others remain a bit hollow due to COVID-related attendance restrictions.
"Having nobody there and having it sound like 50,000 people are there can be odd and distracting but having no sound at all can also sound disconcerting," said Phil Orlins, ESPN's head of baseball production, when asked about past challenges and future opportunities.
With no crowds last year to provide supplementary reaction shots, the coverage teams were reliant on player reactions, which in a way brought the game and its players closer to living rooms, but perhaps lacked some of the random actions of Average Janes and Joes completely unaware the camera was trained in their direction.
"I miss the authentic personality." Orlins said. "That's a real element, especially to baseball. I miss the kid or the father catching a home run, I miss the fun. I miss entertainment of parents and kids, the odd moments when a guy falls over trying to catch a foul ball."
While some normalcy returning will be welcome, the quest to push past complacency remains. Ravech revealed a few other new ideas viewers can expect to see implemented this year.
When a batter like Aaron Judge comes to bat for his second plate appearance of the game, there will be a Second Time Around vignette highlighting one of his attributes — for instance, that he's among the top five in all of baseball in exit velocity.
"Instead of doing what we've done in the past — leaving the ball at the 4-yard line — we'll show the top five in exit velocity and one of us will explain why that's important and who the other guys are," Ravech said.
The goal there is to give complete context — something Ravech learned to value from his SportsCenter days, while concurrently speaking in vernacular accessible to all level of baseball fandom.
"Think of it like a math class," he offered. "You introduce a concept and you build on it. We will talk about spin rate but we'll advance it into spin efficiency. How does someone get it? What difference does it make to a hitter? Can you be someone like Rich Hill and not have a great spin rate but be successful? You take it at its base, you don't worry about offending those who already know it."
Also on tap is an Outside the Box feature with players answering questions on non-baseball topics. This, per Ravech, is a "huge win for everyone" because it allows the players to be humanized and viewers to appreciate the game's great characters.
It's an important year for baseball on the network, which is blessed with many long-standing figures deeply comfortable in their own skin and the skin of the game they cover. Last year was a detour for all involved and keeping things on track became more of a pressing issue than seeing what type of speeds and hair-pin turns the vehicle could handle. This year promises to be different and there appears to be a good roadmap for Ravech and his colleagues to follow.
Here's hoping it brings us to some fun places and remains willing to steer off the beaten path and blaze its own trail.