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So long, and thanks for all the Web Gems: A tribute to ESPN's Baseball Tonight

A must-watch for baseball fans over the last two decades, the venerable show is seeing its schedule and staff slashed as part of ESPN's layoffs.

If you’re a baseball fan of a certain age, there are seven musical notes that are burned into your brain from hours and hours of late-night ESPN watching—seven notes that invariably meant lots of home runs, Web Gems, and Tim Kurkjian’s voice. Those seven notes meant it was time for Baseball Tonight, one of the best sports highlight shows of its time and a staple for fans throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Debuting in 1990, Baseball Tonight was by no means the first or most popular baseball show—This Week In Baseball was the forerunner and the gold standard—but it was revolutionary in its format. Every single night during the season, you could get anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour of baseball highlights, commentary and analysis, including score updates and video from ongoing games—every single night! Before Baseball Tonight, you could only get baseball highlights from that night’s SportsCenter or your local newscast, but there was no guarantee you’d get anything more than 15–20 seconds, if your team got a spot at all. And while Baseball Tonight still skewed heavily toward the big-market teams, every game and franchise got an audience, even if brief.

But after 27 years on the air, the iconic show has taken a major blow. Among the dozens of layoffs announced by ESPN on Wednesday were several prominent baseball analysts, most notably veteran reporter Jayson Stark, but also including reporter Jim Bowden, columnist Jim Caple, beatwriters Mark Saxon and Doug Padilla, and color commentators (and Baseball Tonight regulars) Dallas Braden, Doug Glanville and Raul Ibañez. On top of that came the news that Baseball Tonight would see its schedule significantly reduced and will now run just once a week, on Sunday nights ahead of ESPN’s national game of the week.

That Baseball Tonight has seen its standing wane is no surprise given both the state of things at ESPN and in the world of sports media as a whole. ESPN’s acquisition of additional live sports broadcast rights over the years, as well as the network’s inexorable shift into increased NFL and NBA coverage, slowly but steadily ate away at the space Baseball Tonight had. A show that was always on at least once a night (and sometimes two or three times) soon found itself appearing spottily on the calendar, sometimes absent for days at a time.

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Ironically enough, MLB helped dig Baseball Tonight’s grave as well. The creation of the league’s cable and satellite viewing package—Extra Innings—in 2001 and, far more importantly, the advent of an internet streaming option in the form of the following year gave out-of-town fans a chance to watch their favorite team from anywhere (blackout restrictions notwithstanding), dealing a big hit to the nightly highlight show’s audience. So, too, did the advent of mobile technology and highlights on demand pioneered by MLB Advanced Media, allowing consumers to watch baseball whenever they wanted and wherever they were once smart phones became available en masse.

The final nail in the coffin was the creation of the MLB Network and its flagship nightly show, MLB Tonight, in 2009. A multi-hour highlight show that also allowed live look-ins to games in progress (a right that Baseball Tonight didn’t have at its outset and didn’t gain from the league for several years), MLB Tonight offered everything that Baseball Tonight did but for longer and in more detail. Coupled with ESPN’s diminishment of the show, it spelled the end of an era in Bristol. And as Baseball Tonight slides from sight, the network's baseball coverage will apparently look more like MLB Network's Intentional Talk, the sports radio talk show-esque gab hour hosted by Kevin Millar and Chris Rose and which will now be broadcast on ESPN as well. Highlights are out; shout debates and jokey ex-player banter is the future.

But while ESPN seeks to bury Baseball Tonight, I come here to praise it. If you were a baseball fan who came of age in the 1990s or 2000s, Baseball Tonight was the show—your pass to all the highlights you could possibly want. That was especially true if you were an out-of-town fan, with no way to watch your favorite team in action save for nationally televised games and matchups with whatever your local squad was. Growing up as a Red Sox fan in Maryland, I got my fair share of games via national broadcasts on FOX and ESPN and when Boston played Baltimore. But Baseball Tonight was my best friend for all those other regular-season games lost to me, even if all I got was 30–45 seconds of Nomar Garciaparra’s swing or Pedro Martinez’s fastball. It was even more valuable for fans of teams that rarely got a national spotlight—your Brewers or Royals or Padres.

Baseball Tonight brought the game to the fan for nearly three decades. It featured some of the country's sharpest minds covering the sport—along with Stark and Kurkjian, venerable Boston Globe columnist Peter Gammons was there from day one, and former New York Times beatwriter Buster Olney joined the crew in 2003. It made great defensive plays cool. It helped make the sport accessible at a time when the league desperately needed it, especially after the 1994 strike. The promise of a live update from your favorite team’s game in progress was enough to keep you glued to the show for a long time, with regular host Karl Ravech and those seven iconic notes taking you inside the park.

I don’t know if I would have become a full-blown baseball fan had it not been for the ease with which I was able to follow the league thanks to Baseball Tonight. In those pre-internet days of boxscores in the newspaper and 1-800 numbers to call for score updates and ESPN’s torturously slow Bottom Line news-ticker, it was manna from baseball heaven. It—and especially that theme song—should always hold a special place in the heart of MLB fans. So long, Baseball Tonight, and thanks for all the Web Gems.