Time to Fill and Energy to Burn: Talking Baseball with the MLB Tonight Crew


Charlie Gehringer was dubbed the Mechanical Man by Lefty Gomez because “you wind him up on Opening Day and forget him.” The Mechanical Man of MLB Tonight is another former second baseman.

“Everyone knows Pedro Martinez is a Hall of Famer but around here, Harold Reynolds is our Hall of Famer as a broadcaster,” host Greg Amsinger says. “He’s a world-class reactor. When something happens most people need time to process it and form their talking points. Harold just sees something and goes. It’s fearless.”

In other words: you wind him up, and he takes care of the rest.

Reynolds is a kinetic ball of energy as he demonstrates the way he used to use a variety of pivots at second base during pregame infield practice. A dozen co-workers look on as he performs, in rapid succession, staccato steps around an imaginary second base intended to confuse anyone who might be scouting from the opposite dugout. Toronto Blue Jays star Jose Bautista has been called for an illegal slide the night before, giving the Tampa Bay Rays a historic replay- and rule-aided victory.

A new era of baseball is seemingly upon us and its merits are being debated in an evening production meeting. Discussion is lively, animated and peppered with diverse opinions. It’s easy to feel the passion for the game seep through every point and counterpoint.

Minutes later an animated Sean Casey breaks down the sweet swing of Robinson Cano with gusto. The career .302 hitter describes the way Cano, who has blasted four home runs in three games, keeps his left elbow tucked close to his body and builds up tension in the barrel of the bat.

Both demos are as lively–if not more so–than the ones the public will see hours later on their televisions. They aren’t vamping for cameras.

There is an appreciation and love for baseball that underscores everything done from the moment the MLB Tonight crew shows up at a nondescript Seacaucus headquarters to the moment the broadcasts ends.

Cynically, I wonder if this is because it’s the third full day of the season and if things are a bit different in, say, mid-August. My gut tells me it’d probably be the same.


Because there’s a brand of energy connected to the show that’s hard to fake and manifests itself on air, for better or for worse. It can lead to greatness and it can lead to an off-the-rails experience.

“I have the keys to the Porsche,” Amsinger says of hosting the late-night MLB Tonight. “My mindset is that it’s okay if we nick it up and we’ve got to see just how fast it can go. My goal is to make it predictably unpredictable.”

We’re tucked away in his office, which resembles the messy bedroom of a baseball-obsessed kid. Stacks of trading cards on his desk form a turreted wall. Assorted St. Louis Cardinals Fatheads eavesdrop. This is his dream job.

I begin to ask him about a moment in the show’s history that stood out above the rest.

“The bat waggle,” he says with a smile before I can finish my question. He’s correctly identified the segment. Martinez’s breakdown of hitters revealing where they want the ball by subtle bat placement during pre-pitch rituals.

“It’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” Amsinger says of the May 2015 breakdown. “People still come up to me and want to talk about it.”

It was a small thing 90 percent of pitchers — and virtually 100 percent of fans would never notice. But Martinez delivered it with the matter-of-fact attitude of someone reciting the state capitals, as if this was knowledge in the public domain.

Turning the minutiae into the mesmerizing is facilitated by the fact the show gets a chance to stretch its legs. Tonight, for instance, is a seven-hour marathon. MLB Tonight airs live seven days a week and accounts for more than 25 hours of programming per week.

“We have time,” is a common refrain among the staff. That can be a double-edged sword, especially in a six-month-long season.

“It’s surprised me how much this is like being a player,” Dan Plesac admits. “The season has its ups and downs. In April, everything is going 100 miles per hour and you’re getting first impressions. Then there can be a lull midseason for a month or two. Then it ramps back up and in September and October it’s the greatest time in the world.”

Plesac, who spent 18 years in the Majors, is a creature of habit. Although he never envisioned joining the broadcasting ranks, he’s proved an effective hybrid for the network, equally capable of playing analyst or de facto host to tee up others.

“Sometimes I’m in here three hours before call times to watch the games,” he says. He’s not bragging as much as he’s admitting a baseball addiction. “It’s hard to go to bed at night because it’s nice to see what happens with your own eyes.

“Every so often there’s a night that reminds me why I do this. I remember watching Dan Duffy’s Major League debut for the Kansas City Royals and being transported back to my own. Suddenly I’m back on the mound at Yankee Stadium.”

Plesac, it should be stated, had the rare privilege of making his first MLB appearance in the Bronx and with the bases loaded. Nothing like baptism by fire.

MLB Tonight began in 2009 with the intention to replicate the frenetic days of March Madness nightly during baseball season, senior vice president of production David Patterson tells me. It marries live updates with reaction and analysis and is the best delivery device for those wanting to follow the entire slate of action in real-time.

At its essence is an attempt to pull from the best parts of two diametrically opposed forms of television.

“It’s like the Red Zone plus Fox’s NFL pregame show,” Amsinger says. “One is completely unscripted and the other is weekly, primarily planned. We want to weave them together nightly.”

It’s a lofty and difficult aim. Gears must be shifted rapidly and smoothly. Improvisational skills are essential. At times the show is loose, perhaps too loose for viewers seeking only the bottom line.” Amsinger calls it “an organized trainwreck.”

One thing you can’t accuse the MLB Tonight talent of is not having enough fun.

“If I can get the guys next to me to feel like stars, then I’ve done my job,” Amsinger says. If they’re having a good time at 12:40 a.m. in a studio on a random weeknight, that spirit catches on.”

“I didn’t realize completely how much I love baseball until I started doing this job,” Plesac adds.

With 19 former players on its roster, MLB Network has the option to mix and match a diverse array of experiences and viewpoints. The biggest name on that list is Martinez.

Felipe Alou is the man responsible for bringing the bat waggle to Martinez’s attention when he was a young pitcher for the Montreal Expos. A brief chat with the the diminutive righthander yields nugget after nugget of inside baseball.

“During batting practice, the pitcher is standing closer so the hitter has the same reaction time as when the ball is thrown from 60 feet, six inches,” he explains. “If they were having trouble getting around on an inside pitch during BP then I knew they’d have trouble during the game with the same pitch.

“A lot of people say Fenway is a bad place to pitch because of the Green Monster. I would use that to my advantage by pitching up and in where a right-handed hitter wants to yank it.”

Martinez kept these secrets of observation quiet while he was playing. Now, he has the outlet to share them.

The man who made over $146 million in salary during his career retreats to a darkened edit bay where he works on a few packages for the show. He’s focused on a few different things.

One is CC Sabathia’s recent tendency to leave pitches over the meaty part of the plate. Martinez is of the belief the one-time Yankees ace needs to adapt his style to the one that worked for Tom Glavine: nibbling on the outside corner of the plate.

Next up is archived footage of Martinez pitching to Robinson Cano, who he held hitless in 12 at-bats.

“You want pitches that look good and end up outside of the strike zone,” he explains. The queued video shows Martinez using that strategy to get Cano off-balance and out of his comfort zone.

For Martinez and the others, this gig is a way to stay personally connected to the game they love. They speak of the staff as they would a baseball team, with everyone doing their job in search of a common goal.

Perhaps more honestly, one tells me the adjustment to being home every day after being on the road for so many years means he drives his wife crazy. This is his place to go. This is a place for him to be an outside cat.

As with a baseball team, dynamic personalities must mesh, either organically or out of necessity.

“We’re a tight-knit group,” coordinating producer Rich Ciancimino says. Having a common love in baseball probably helps.

Within the group, however, there are a dozens of unique ways they approach the game.

Robert Flores joined MLB Network last month after nearly 11 years at ESPN and is the newest anchor. As he takes over for Brian Kenny at 8 p.m., he’s jokes that the last time they were on television together they were probably talking about LeBron James and Tim Tebow.

There’s a very realistic chance he’s right.

Flores’ new position will allow him to eschew the pursuit of clicks (like what The Big Lead does) for deep dives on the infield fly rule and Rule 5 picks. Savvy viewers will begin to pick up on his theories and outlook toward the sport. He’ll gain fans or criticism —-more realistically, both.

“A variety of perspectives is a good thing,” Patterson says.

Before going on air, Kenny, one of modern trailblazers in embracing sabermetrics and advanced metrics on television made an offhand comment about the inanity of a third-inning sacrifice bunt. When the Minnesota Twins actually lay one down a few hours a later, he’s taken aback.

“We should be constantly evolving in the way we think,” Kenny says. His first book, Ahead of the Curve, slated to come out in July, explores that. “We want to mine ideas,” he says.

One of his strengths on-air is being a well-honed b.s. detector. While others may let an antiquated or downright erroneous idea go unchallenged, he adeptly asks the pertinent follow-up without badgering.

Reynolds best represents the Old School, and fairly or otherwise, is one of the most divisive baseball analysts working today. Reading his Twitter mentions during last fall’s World Series would not have been a good idea for his friends and family.

His ubiquitous smile and jovial nature is on display all night. He can command a room without being overbearing. His youthful energy belies his actual age of 55. He shoots hoops on a miniature basketball hoop and chops it up with anyone within earshot.

Ciancimino has told me analysts usually come in full of ideas for segments. Reynolds proves him right and tenaciously pitches demos and theories. And he’s not alone.

It was striking how involved the talent is in driving the direction of the show.

“If you want to be lazy, you can be lazy,” Plesac says.

Tonight he’s checking in with a Pittsburgh Pirates source on the resurgent Juan Nicasio. He wants to know if there’s anything different mechanically. He shows me a text that says “no change.” The note never makes it into broadcast but allows us to speculate that the change could be more mental than physical.

We’re just two guys talking baseball. One of us knows a hell of a lot more than the other. But that’s alright, according to Plesac.

“I want the conversation to be accessible. Sometimes jargon and numbers can confuse the average viewer. It’s about delivering the necessary information in a way they can understand and appreciate.”

The true heartbeat of the show is not Studio 3 where the talent sits. It’s in a control room with over 100 screens and a score of behind-the-scenes producers and loggers. Anyone who has ever said baseball is slow would change their tune after spending 10 minutes in here.

Highlights from around the league pile up and the air is filled with chatter. Should they stay live on a Brian McCann at-bat in New York or show the Miami Marlins mounting a ninth-inning rally against a suspect Detroit bullpen?

These are the decisions made quickly and efficiently over and over on any given night. Much like veteran hitters, eyes are keenly trained. Carlos Carrasco is pitching from the stretch with no one on. Victor Martinez just hit his second pinch-hit home run in as many days.

Nothing slips by this room.

“The action is broken up into pieces,” Ciancimino says. “Everyone is doing something different, looking at different games.”

The combing is surprisingly fine-toothed.

“I know how each broadcast’s centerfield camera angle looks,” Ciancimino says. I know that when Hanley Ramirez is striding to the plate, it’s going to take longer than some rookie just up from AAA.”

I find myself embracing my inner baseball nerd, comfortably at peace with all that entails in this darkened room. These are my people. These people wouldn’t laugh if I told them I scribble fake lineups comprised of only switch-hitters or players who wear No. 24.

I’m so busy main-lining the action that I forget this is work for them and the stakes are high. It’s a stressful job with a constant threat of public failure. Accuracy and timeliness are king.

That’s the thrill of working on a non-negotiable deadline. It raises the pulse and keeps the senses sharp. What Plesac said earlier about having a hard time turning “it” off makes sense.

Amsinger admits he got in the habit of having two glasses of red wine after his shifts to come down from the night. He beams with pride, though, as he tells me he’s 2-for-2 in going straight home and to bed.

The optimism of early April, it seems, extends beyond the white lines.

The time comes for me to leave. The show goes on. It’s still going two hours later when I get home. Baseball is a marathon and so too is MLB Tonight. They’ll run another one tomorrow.

It’s a fun run. There may be a few side stitches along the way, but that’s too be expected. Perhaps a viewer will get sick of hearing about Papa Slams or find Reynolds’ reluctance to embrace change with arms wide open annoying.

Reasonable baseball minds can disagree. Just know that everything you hear on the show comes from a place of honesty. There are no contrived debates or positions taken for the sake of good television. The way these guys are on camera mirrors how they are off of it.

Over the weekend I flipped the show on and Martinez had to be reminded to pay attention to Ross Stripling’s no-hit bid because he was distracted by several potted plants. Whomever got to sit in on that production meeting should have some stories to tell.

[Images via MLB Network and USA Today Sports]

NOTE: The Big Lead also visited MLB Network back in 2012. Mike Cardillo did a wonderful job describing the assorted studios and some of the MLB Tonight’s history.