Tuesday January 19th, 2010

Each week SI.com's Richard Deitsch will report on newsmakers from the world of TV, radio and the Web. There's a two-word answer why MLB Network landed Mark McGwire's first television interview after he admitted using performance-enhancing drugs:

Bob Costas.

Over the years, Costas had repeatedly made overtures to McGwire, the biggest interview get in sports (at least before Tiger Woods went the way of D.B. Cooper), letting the former Cardinals star know he could get a fair and credible forum. Upon hiring Costas a year ago, MLB Net president and CEO Tony Petitti said McGwire's name was at the top of the list when the two discussed the newsmakers they wanted for Costas' Studio 42 interview show.

"We were hopeful that if Mark ever did want to speak, he would want to do it with Bob," Petitti said. "We put it on the back burner, but then in the fall when it was announced he might be the hitting coach with the Cardinals, we thought he would probably end up having interviews at some point."

Pettiti said he and Costas had "exploratory discussions" with McGwire's people over the past couple of months, with those discussions becoming intense in the days leading up to the Jan. 11 interview. The McGwire rollout was orchestrated by Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who runs Ari Fleischer Sports Communications.

"The one thing that's important to understand is we never knew what was in the [press] release," Pettiti said when asked if MLB Network held the news of McGwire's admission in exchange for the exclusive interview. "Bob never saw a press release prior to 3 p.m. [when The Associated Press broke the story]. That's when we saw it, and that's the way it was. The interview was something that had to be set up ahead of time. Once the news broke, they knew Mark was going to need to be out there speaking, and they decided Bob was a good place to do it because of what he brings, in terms of credibility and questions. It would not have happened if Bob was not here. Bob got the interview, and we worked out the mechanics."

"Some people assume -- understandably, but wrongly -- that this was an MLB-orchestrated thing because it's the MLB Network,'' Costas told St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Dan Caesar last week. "Anyone who heard the commentary immediately afterward, if it was like, 'Let's get this guy a soft landing place,' they didn't get the memo.''

No matter how you feel about how Costas handled the interview -- and the thought here is that he handled it superbly, especially so given that it was an hour long and live -- the McGwire sit-down represented a huge coup for the year-old network. In a smartly reported piece last week, The Philadelphia's Inquirer's Matt Gelb explored whether the McGwire interview represented a shift from newsmakers opting for league- and team-owned networks, as opposed to traditional outlets such as ESPN.

"If we are doing our jobs properly, hiring the right talent, putting together the right programming and building things properly, we should be a place or be competitive for that type of story," Pettiti said. "When it comes to things that are breaking, we will provide as much coverage as we can. The answer in this case is Bob Costas was the driving force, but going forward, I am hopeful that we will play for those type of things."

How bothered were ESPN officials that the MLB Net scored McGwire's first interview? At least publicly, they brushed off the notion that this was a watershed sports media moment.

"I think, at this point, you have to look at it as a one-off and see where things develop over time," said ESPN senior coordinating producer Jay Levy, the executive in charge of Baseball Tonight. "I don't think there is any history to lead me to believe there is a huge shift. In baseball and across all sports, I feel we get our share of big interviews first. You are always disappointed in a small sense that you don't get the big interview, but we were not the only entity that did not get Mark McGwire first, and it's no different than any other big interview that has happened or will happen. So it's disappointing at a level that we did not get the initial interview, but we were able to get McGwire on the air with Bob Ley for follow-up questions, and we were able to get Tony La Russa on TV first."

Pettiti said he does not look at MLB Net as competing on a daily basis against ESPN.

"The idea that we are trying to take audience away from baseball, we don't look at it that way," he said. "We just want to grow our audience and figure out a way to get the fans who are tuning into baseball locally every night to come and check us out when the games are over. It doesn't mean you won't watch Baseball Tonight, and the same thing goes with Fox, Turner and the regional channels."

Said Levy: "In its broadest sense, the MLB Network is competition and direct competition when Baseball Tonight is on. But I also think there is a healthy relationship where the exposure of baseball being on 24/7 has helped Baseball Tonight, and allowed fans to pick and choose when they want to watch either product. At times, their product is different than what we do based on the fact that they are on 24/7. They are serving the baseball fan that wants it on all the time. While we are basically covering the same storylines, I think we each go about a different way and serve a different aspect for baseball fans."

With the addition of Peter Gammons -- and with longtime baseball journalists Jon Heyman, Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci already on its roster -- MLB Net is tacitly taking aim at the breaking news and analysis terrain that Baseball Tonight has owned. (It's worth noting that I work with both Heyman and Verducci). Also, Baseball Tonight must retool this season after losing Gammons and Steve Phillips, who was fired after it was revealed that he had had an affair with a 22-year-old production assistant with the network. The ESPN show has added the never-at-a-loss-for-words Bobby Valentine and a weekday afternoon edition at 3:30 p.m. ET prior to the season.

"[The loss of Gammons and Phillips] has definitely had a short-term impact, but I am very confident in our stable of analysts," Levy said. "We're in a process like everyone else to see what other talent is out there and how we can continue to add."

• "Dear Bill Polian: You made your bed and now you have to lie in it. Love, the Jets." -- FootballOutsiders.com editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz, Jan. 17, 7:24 p.m.

• "You know the Super Bowl is near when all the goofy PR story pitches come out. No, I don't want a graphologist to study coaches' signatures." -- Los Angeles Times sports columnist Sam Farmer, Jan. 15, 10:31 a.m.

• "Lane Kiffin: dad a defensive genius, scorching-hot wife, Raiders job, Tenn job, USC job. Has he earned any of it or right place right time?" -- Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, Jan. 12, 9:02 p.m.

Amid their flotilla of weekly e-mails, the NFL Network was kind enough to provide a transcript for last week's "Sunday Sit-Down" conversation between Deion Sanders and Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. Some nice stuff here.

Deion Sanders: Two words or less, when I call out a name, tell me what you think.

Darrelle Revis: OK.

Sanders: T.O.

Revis: Slouch.

Sanders: Randy Moss.

Revis: Probably say slouch, too.

Sanders: Chad Ochocinco.

Revis: Competitor.

Sanders: Steve Smith.

Revis: Competitor.

Sanders: Andre Johnson.

Revis: Beast.

"His is a flawed candidacy. It is built on his power, and his power was based on performance-enhancing drugs. I don't rule out changing my mind in the future, but I'm not sure why I would." -- Fox Sports and MLB Net analyst Ken Rosenthal, to The New York Times, on whether he would vote for Mark McGwire following his steroid admission.

•Get ready for some angry West Coast viewers next month, as both Seattle Times Olympics writer Ron Judd and Los Angeles Times sportswriter Diane Pucin went off on NBC's plan to delay coverage of some marquee events until prime time on the West Coast. Along with the release of the Olympic schedule, NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol announced last week that his network will lose money on the Vancouver Games, which may or may not be a subtle attempt to lower prices for the 2014 and 2016 U.S. broadcast bids. There was also a major takedown of Ebersol on Deadspin.com.

•ESPN's Mike Greenberg apologized late Monday night for a horrendous slip of the tounge during his Mike & Mike radio show on Martin Luther King day. Obviously, I can't know what's in Greenberg's heart (though be clear that I'm not suggesting anything nefarious here), but based on his broadcasting history, his interactions with guests of all colors and genders, and from those who know him at ESPN, I believe it was was an unintentional mistake based on the verbiage of the words. But I certainly understand the feelings of those offended, and it speaks to the power of social media and the growing number of people patroling all that is said over any medium. The 11-second recording was posted on YouTube, discussed on Twitter, and grew from there.

•St. Petersburg Times sports media critic Tom Jones took issue with CBS last week for allowing broadcaster Jim Nantz to shoot a commerical with Peyton Manning -- the two are in an ad for Sony televisions. Nantz and Phil Simms will call the Colts-Jets AFC Championship on Sunday (3PM ET). "Why should we trust anything Nantz has to say about Manning ever again?" Jones wrote. "Even if Nantz has every right to defend Manning after a play, why should we believe him after assuming the two hung out together and socialized during a commercial shoot? It's a blatant conflict that CBS shouldn't have allowed and Nantz shouldn't have agreed to do." On Tuesday I asked Nantz if that criticism was fair. "I don't think that is anything new and I don't think I'm the first guy to do that," Nantz said. "If anyone is going to think for one second that I am going to be influenced and call a game tilted in favor in one favor of one team, I mean that has never happened in my career. You can write something that create some really good energy and excitement and get some reaction and try to stir some sort of synthetic controversy but there is not one that exists...Twenty-five years in my career that has never been a factor so I'm not concerned about it all." Said Harold Bryant, CBS Vice President, Production: "From a management side, we are not concerned about it, either. We discuss these things as well and we know for a fact that Jim is not going to tilt his broadcast in any way because of a commercial."

If Steve Phillips proved anything prior to his career implosion, it's that a middling baseball general manager can provide interesting commentary as a television analyst. So I was struck last week upon reading that J.P. Ricciardi, fired last October by the Blue Jays after eight years as the club's top executive, had been signed by If Management, a Manhattan-based broadcasting and marketing representation firm whose client base includes ESPN's Dan Shulman, Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine and New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya.

Gideon Cohen, IF Management's director of sports broadcasting, said the company reached out to Ricciardi shortly after he was let go by the Jays. Cohen said Ricciardi initially did not see himself in broadcasting but was soon drawn to the idea after speaking with IF officials. Cohen and IF president Steve Herz met with Ricciardi last month at an Italian restaurant in his hometown of Worcester, Mass., and left the meeting thinking Ricciardi had terrific potential.

"After we met with J.P., Steve said to me on the drive home, 'That might be the most impressive person we've met with as a potential client,' " Cohen said. "We were blown away by his personality. He's a character. Initially, I thought that his heavy Massachusetts accent might be a bad thing, but it actually makes him come off more of a real person."

"Having over 30 years of hands-on experience in player development, coaching, scouting and the front office enables me to bring a unique viewpoint to any baseball broadcast," Ricciardi told SI.com in an e-mail. "Sharing this mind-set with viewers would be a refreshing and new for me."

Ricciardi is making the rounds this month in an attempt to impress future employers. He was a guest on Baseball Tonight last week, and has an audition with MLB Network this week. (He's one of a number of baseball people auditioning this month, a list that includes Tony Clark, Doug Glanville and Nomar Garciaparra.) Ricciardi was never bashful with his opinions, which would aid him in a broadcasting job.

"The guy certainly showed during his Jay days that he can talk, and he certainly wasn't afraid to offer his opinions, which would serve him well on TV," the Toronto Star's Chris Zelkovich cheekily wrote last week. "Let's hope his five-year plan for his new career works out better than it did in his old one."

Asked how and why he would be comfortable commenting on owners and teams he might work for in the future, Ricciardi said: "Because I have firsthand knowledge of what team owners and front offices deal with, and I'm able to provide an honest, fair-minded and objective presentation of the circumstances and challenges that organizations face when making decisions. I believe that team owners, general managers and front offices would appreciate this perspective and this type of coverage. I don't feel it would hinder any potential future working relationships."

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