It's 1 a.m. Do you know where your husbands/wives/children are? Well, if they're baseball fans on the East Coast or in the Midwest and it's the wee smalls of Wednesday or Saturday, they may be in front of the TV set watching the late game on ESPN. Or, as broadcaster Chris (I'll Go To The End Of The Billboard Charts To Find A Nickname For A Player) Berman calls it, "California Dreamin'."
ESPN's new omnipresent baseball coverage is a dream come true for fans, provided they have cable. In the first two weeks of the season alone, ESPN covered 25 national and regional games (in 15 "exposures," or time slots). At last, baseball coverage to lose sleep over.
While this blanket coverage may seem too much for some people, it justified its existence last Friday night, when ESPN cut away from the main Dodger-Astro game to pick up the perfect-game-in-progress by the Mariners' Brian Holman. A lot of hearts were broken, coast-to-coast, when the A's Ken Phelps homered with two outs in the ninth to ruin Holman's perfect game and shutout.
The $400 million contract that the network signed with major league baseball last year gives it the right to televise as many as 175 games a season through 1993. The basic schedule calls for a Sunday night game (with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan at the mikes), a Tuesday night doubleheader (Sean McDonough and Ray Knight, Berman and Tommy Hutton), a Wednesday night game (Gary Thorne, Norm Hitzges and, starting next week, Mike Lupica) and a Friday night twin bill (Steve Zabriskie and Jim Palmer, Thorne and Hitzges).
"I hope there aren't too many people out there watching every minute of every game," says ESPN's director of production, Steve Anderson. "I would assume most of our viewers have clickers in their hands. We expect them to switch to other channels during our coverage. That's why we do so many updates."
ESPN has thrown so much effort, manpower and money into this venture that it's hard to complain about the coverage. It would be like a kid whining that there's too much licorice in the candy store. So with that in mind, here are capsule reviews of the members of ESPN's starting lineup:
Jon Miller The nation is now finding out how good the Orioles' superb radio man is.
Joe Morgan Some of us are still trying to recover from the incompetence of ABC's 1988 American League Championship Series team of Morgan, Gary Bender and Reggie Jackson. That debacle wasn't all Morgan's fault, though, and he has already shown refreshing candor.
Sean McDonough He sounds a little like a road company Bob Costas.
Ray Knight The former caddy for Nancy Lopez comes across as straightforward and perceptive. He may also have the most distinctive Southern accent in baseball broadcasting since Red Barber.
Chris Berman Unless he starts paying as much attention to describing the game as he does to trying to find a sobriquet for Lance Blankenship, we would rather have Berman backbackbackbackback in the studio doing SportsCenter.
Tommy Hutton ESPN is making a mistake by limiting Hutton to the Tuesday late game and a backup game on Friday. Easy on the ears and nimble of mind, Hutton should be on at least one prime-time national game a week. The other night, when Berman was tripping over the names Carney Lansford and Mark Langston, Hutton said, "Good thing Rick Langford no longer pitches for the A's."
Gary Thorne The former assistant district attorney of Bangor, Maine, is an excellent play-by-play man, with a good sense for setting up a dramatic moment. He also has the most infectious laugh in the business. He would make an ideal partner for Hutton.
Norm Hitzges Possessed of a Baseball Encyclopedic mind, he sounds a lot like Dick Vitale and unlike any baseball analyst we've ever heard. Stormin' Norman will take some getting used to.
Steve Zabriskie He's nothing if not versatile—in the first two weeks, he worked with Morgan, Hitzges, Palmer and Bob Gibson (one of ESPN's backup announcers). Your basic Wonder bread announcer.
Jim Palmer He may be the most underrated analyst in the business; every pitcher in baseball should be listening to him. His partners on the ABC telecasts the last five years, Al Michaels and Tim McCarver, won a lot of praise, but the critics always shortchanged Palmer. They probably couldn't trust a guy with his looks.
Baseball on ESPN has already been a boon to the people who play the game. Some players have taken to videotaping telecasts so that they can study their opponents. It may, however, prove a bust to America's households. In his inaugural telecast, Miller quoted Oriole p.r. man Rick Vaughn, who said of ESPN's baseball coverage, "This is going to ruin a few marriages. Including my own."