If the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY is considered the Mecca of baseball, then the MLB Network in Secaucus, NJ should be looked at as the second coming. Launched in January of 2009, the Network has just begun it’s sixth season of not just broadcasting games and highlight shows, but bringing baseball into the 21st century. And the facility in which they do it all is one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Greeted by a massive collage of today’s stars of the diamond, as well as a giant screen displaying MLB Network’s 12 hours of live weekday coverage, I couldn’t hide my smile as I began a tour of our national pastime's modern day home. The next thing that caught my attention was an entire wall of old baseball cards, that I sincerely wish I had as wallpaper when I was a kid, and maybe even now. This was only a warmup for what I was about to discover behind the scenes of baseball’s broadcasting nerve center.
Whisked through corridor after corridor of cool memorabilia and awesome photos, I found my way into Studio 3, named after Babe Ruth, which literally put my head on a swivel. 5,600 square feet, Studio 3 features 62 video displays, as well as 108 and 103 inch monitors. The single space offers six different broadcast areas, and is ringed by backlit logos of all 30 clubs. Yes, it’s candyland for sports heads. If that was cool, what I saw next made me rub my eyes in astonishment. Studio 42, yup, in honor of Jackie, is an entire replica stadium and field. We’re talking bleachers, real-time scoreboards, and even a field turf. Think the coolest wiffle ball game known to man. In between having my pleasure sensors tickled by the sights and sounds of the game, both past and present, I caught up with Matt Vasgersian, Al Leiter, and Harold Reynolds, who’ve been in Secaucus from the beginning, to talk Jeter’s last ride, how the MLB Network has changed the game, and the start of a new season.
Written by Adam Silvers (@silversurfer103)
What’s your favorite part of a new season?
Matt Vasgersian: The overall enthusiasm level. Once the season gets going, unfortunately like anything, you kind of take for granted that there are games being played. But yesterday, every swing and miss it seemed like, every base hit, people were reacting to it. Everyone was checking their fantasy league lineups, and everybody was wondering aloud whether they should lead with this or that on their show. It was cool. Everybody’s excited.
What’s the best, and most challenging, part of running a 24-hour network of just baseball?
MV: The most challenging part of it is that we’re in the Eastern time zone, and there are games that start after 10 p.m. eastern. Like last night, the end of that Oakland game, and I’m an Oakland fan, was awesome, and I couldn’t stay up for it. That kinda stinks. So I’m showing up today, and I’m looking at highlights on MLB.com, and I’m catching up the way a fan would. Which is fine, because that’s the only orientation that I really have to this job. I’m not an ex-player. A lot of people think, ‘gosh, what do you talk about when there are no games being played?’ Well, there’s plenty to talk about. We do a whole off-season where you’re never challenged for topics. The best part about it being a 24-hour network is that we do this everyday, all day, and there’s nothing that happens in baseball that gets past us. I’m lucky enough to get out of the building and do games, for FOX and with MLB Network, and I feel like today is prepping tomorrow. You never have to study anything the way you would if you were covering, say, an NFL schedule, where you spend your five days prior to that practice weekend studying. This just preps itself.
How have you seen the game evolve, both on and off the field, in your time in baseball?
Harold Reynolds: The economics has changed the game, clearly. And I think it’s affected it not just with the amount of money guys are making, or owners are making, but in protection of players, too. For example, Clayton Kershaw. If he’s not making 215 million dollars I don’t know if he’s on the disabled list right now. Guys not pitching deep in games. Different things like that have affected the way the game is played, and I understand the financial protection. If I had an investment in a lot of these players, I might do the same thing. As far as the game itself, I really think it’s changed because we’re over thinking, and we’re not letting players play. And that starts at little league. It annoys me when I see some coach calling somebody’s pitches, or even in college when the catcher sits there and he looks at the bench, and the coaches are calling every pitch. That doesn’t allow the players to evolve and have their freedom of who they are. I think that’s missing, particularly in the younger generations.
Yes, there have been ebbs and flows in it based on PED’s, and that’s real. But at the end, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches. It’s how we perceive it now that’s changing.
MV: I don’t know that the game has evolved as much as the coverage has evolved. My first job in the big leagues was in ‘97 doing Brewers TV, and we were on this little teeny, tiny, bastard, stepchild cable outlet, we’ll call it. We did 80 games, I think we did half the schedule, and that wasn’t that long ago. That has changed. The immediacy of information has changed the way the game is being digested, now. We could talk all day about the world of sabermetrics, and how that’s changed the perception of baseball. And now the guy on the couch feels like he has just as good, if not better, intel into the game, than somebody who has access to every piece of videotape and every computer-generated breakdown of a set player. It’s empowering for fans to think that they know all that, and they do. So I don’t know that the game has changed in the way it’s played. Yes, there have been ebbs and flows in it based on PED’s, and that’s real. But at the end, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches. It’s how we perceive it now that’s changing.
PED’s and baseball, thoughts?
HR: I think we’re finally getting a grip on it. I don’t think people really realized how big the problem was. The problem being how sophisticated players, the extent they were going to, to use it. I think Biogenesis has opened everybody’s eyes to it when a lot of that stuff became public. I don’t think other players realized they were going to that extent to do that. But I applaud the commissioner and Rob Manfred for going after Biogenesis, and some people didn’t agree with it, but it’s changed the landscape of the game to another level again.
What has the MLB Network done for the game over the last few years?
Al Leiter: Have you seen other places, in terms of how everybody’s improved since we’ve come in? Absolutely. We’ve helped make what a long season seems at times long and drawn out, to interesting, hopefully cool, but we’ve narrowed it to tonight. Something that never took place in baseball was, it’s April you go and watch your team, you kind of glaze over June, the All-Star game’s fun and the dog days of August, then you start getting into September. We have interesting baseball conversation, from super-smart sabermetric get the analytical computer people to you’re either the bug or the windshield. I think that spectrum is great because that’s our viewer, those are the fans. Some people may want to know at different levels, and interesting tidbits, so this place has created that relevancy. Absolutely.
HR: We’ve taken it to a whole nother level of exposure. From the difference of when I grew up as a kid, to what my kids get to see, it was one game a week and that’s all we got to see. There are a lot of games on TV now, but we bring it full circle. You go one-stop shopping. When I talk with people, they don’t want to change the channel. I think that’s really cool, that’s what the network has done. And you see the NFL Network, what they’ve done with the RedZone channel. I don’t even watch a football game anymore, I turn on the RedZone. People are doing that a lot with baseball, people are coming here and they’re watching MLB Tonight. We’re not RedZone, we give you a lot more, we’re giving you analysis and we’re stopping down, and we’re showing you stuff. But it’s addicting, no doubt.
Did you ever think you’d be doing this when you stopped playing?
AL: I played 19 years. You’re around a lot, and experience a lot of press conferences, and cool moments, and All-Star games, and World Series’, and the New York media for a long time, so I kind of get it. And if you’re not afraid to talk, let’s start with that, hopefully you’re somewhat articulate, and as you get closer to the end, which I did at 40, you realize in the last few years, what do I want to do. People float it your way, ‘hey, do you want to do games?” Really, less of this existed, unless you went to ESPN. I thought, ya, that wou’d be cool. I’ll do a handful of games, be home, watch the kids, and do some of it.
My first experience with television was in 1998 with the Mets, I went up to ESPN and did active-player Baseball Tonight. Then the following year I went to the World Series, did the same thing, ‘99 San Diego Yankees. 2000 I’m in the World Series, 2001 I don’t think I did anything. Anyway, the first year I did was ‘03, FOX called and said, ‘do you want to do the game?’ Like, I’ve never done a game. Ya, but you’re active and you’re great, and you’ll be in there with Brennaman and Lyons. I was like, ‘alright’. So I do the Cubs Marlins. Bartman. Historic. I guess they liked me. The next year I do ‘04 Yankees Red Sox LCS, and the Red Sox come back to beat the Yankees. That’s ‘04, and at the end of ‘05 I retired. Then the YES Network called and asked if I wanted to do 50 games, and I said, ‘sure,’ and that was the start of it.
Is there a challenge to running a 24-hour network?
HR: Oh, yeah. I think the biggest one is you have to entertain people. I think Tony’s [Petitti] been brilliant in his philosophy in hiring on-air talent, as well as the people who work behind the scenes. Those guys make it work as much as we do. Our show is unique enough that we’re almost broadcasting a game every live look-in. You have to have broadcasting experience, as far as sitting in a booth saying here’s the situation we’re looking at, and also be able to be on studio to walk in here and present it.
Who’s a breakout individual or team to watch this year?
HR: I think the Kansas City Royals are a breakout team. I think Eric Hosmer breaks out, and I think we’re going to see a real star player this year. There are several players who can break out this season, but I think Eric Hosmer’s been that guy kind of knocking at the door and people not knowing what he can do. I think he becomes a household name this year.
Quick World Series prediction?
MV: Oh, man. I can’t get away from St. Louis, and I hate that because another trip to St. Louis and I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. There’s only so much toasted ravioli a man can eat. In the American League, I refuse to say Detroit, just because they always break your heart with a bad World Series. I think the Yankees are going to be a lot better than people give them credit for this year. How about that? St. Louis and New York.
HR: I had the Nationals, and in the American League I think I had the Tigers. I’m trying to be consistent, but I may change it day by day. It’s early, it’s tough, but I think the Washington Nationals probably are the best team fit to go to the World Series right now.
AL: The National League to me is easier, in the sense that I think it’s pretty clear who the better teams are. It rolls off with LA, St. Louis, and the Nationals. One of those three are going. American League to me is way more cloudy. The American League West is really hard to predict. To see what Oakland’s done the last couple of years is really pretty amazing. The Tigers I think no doubt [are in the mix], but I do think it’s going to be interesting offensively. With Prince gone, Jhonny Peralta was a nice player, I don’t know, but they do have probably the three best of one, two, three, I think. In the East, with the Yankees it’s a health issue. Do their star players stay on the field? Does CC Sabathia pitch like an ace, and does Robertson do a nice job? If they do, they’re going to be in it. I don’t know whether it’s 92 wins, 91 wins, 93, does it win it? I don’t know. Boston, who would’ve figured? 74 wins two years ago, they were just trying to get their respectability. They win 97 games. Tampa Bay, man, they do it right. They get rid of the player at the right time, they bring in the Wil Myers, they rebuild constantly without having to overpay guys.