“Stay on the Braves game.”
With that simple line, the MLB Network control room flies into controlled chaos. The channel’s signature show, “MLB Tonight,” has been on the air for just over an hour. About a dozen Major League games are simultaneously playing out across America. Inside the small, dark control room in Northern New Jersey, at least a hundred moving screens monitor the action all at once. It’s an ADD dream, or nightmare.
One game suddenly stands out among the throng – the mostly meaningless Braves/Brewers game in a decidedly empty Turner Field. Carlos Gomez hits a home run off Paul Maholm and holds a pose for a split second at the plate – no big deal – but, as he starts to trot around the bases, Gomez begins jawing at Freddie Freeman. His progress toward home is halted halfway down the third base line by Braves’ catcher Brian McCann. The benches clear. There’s all sorts of pushing and shoving. Everyone in the control room zeroes their focus on that feed.
Within seconds, the FOX Sports South feed takes over “MLB Tonight,” with analysts Mitch Williams and Mike Lowell breaking it down in real time – offering their perspective about whether or not it was bush league – while host Paul Severino plays traffic cop. Researchers in the control room frantically dial up Baseball-Reference to scan past Gomez vs. Maholm matchups, checking to see if the two have history. They look through Twitter to see if there’s more between the two than meets the eye. Sure enough, Malholm plunked Gomez during a game in June. Another staffer digs into the vast tape library to find the play, which makes it onto “MLB Tonight” less than 10 minutes after McCann blocked Gomez from touching home plate.
Meanwhile, there’s a debate in the control room about whether the run by Gomez counts since he never touched home plate.
It is but one play in a sea of thousands. In an age where NFL fans can’t live without the league-spanning RedZone Channel on Sunday afternoons, the crew at MLB Tonight does it every day and night for almost seven months.
Eventually the dust settles and the action shifts to the White Sox/Indians game in Cleveland, with Williams and Lowell debating the appropriate nickname for young Chicago outfielder Avisail Garcia.
Walking away from the soundstage of Studio 3, chatter can be heard in the distance. They’re still talking about the near-brawl and how fearsome Atlanta’s hulking 6-foot-4 catcher Evan Gattis would be in a fight. “You don’t mess with a guy who’s lived in a dumpster.”
The remark doesn’t make it on air, which is unfortunate since most daily conversations aren’t peppered with such rich imagery. It feels commonplace inside this glittering studio.
It is hard to remember watching baseball before “MLB Tonight” went on the air five years ago with its instant highlights, live look-ins on no-hit bids, and first guess opinions.
“When Tony Petitti started this in 2009 he said, ‘This should be March Madness every night,’” MLBT’s Senior Coordinating Producer Dave Patterson told me earlier in the day. “The games make your show.”
Earlier this week, MLB Network invited me to spend a day at their studios, located on a nondescript road in Secaucus, N.J., off Exit 16W of the Jersey Turnpike. Walk a few steps in the door, and you would never guess MSNBC once called this place home. The first thing you see is a wall covered in Topps baseball cards — yes plenty of the oh-so-good wood paneled 1987 set. Peer a little further down the corridor and you are greeted by signatures of all the living Hall of Famers who have come through the studio doors. Goose Gossage’s neatly scripted cursive “G’s” stand out, as does Andre Dawson’s perfect penmanship.
Massive Studio 42, a FieldTurf-covered mock stadium that hosts the Major League Baseball Amateur draft, is deeper inside the building and allows analysts plenty of room to demonstrate plays. You’d never know this 9,600 square foot space formerly housed the Don Imus radio show simulcast. Harold Reynolds — among the first analysts hired by the network — told builders where to position home plate. Originally, it was going to be in what is now left field.
Host Greg Amsinger recounts an epic game of Wiffle Ball staged by Jonny Gomes, John Lackey and Kevin Millar in this space. I casually pitch an idea how they should create a celebrity Wiffle Ball show in the vein of MTV’s Rock N’ Jock for winter programming.
I bump into Reynolds himself exiting Studio 42. He enthusiastically rushes me into the control room, and we start playing around with the Cisco Ballpark Cam, which is operated remotely from Secaucus. We pan out at Coors Field to see the Rocky Mountains majestically overseeing the action beyond the stadium. Reynolds, ever full of energy, then pops into an editing booth to pull up a play of a missed liner by Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro for an upcoming debate with his sparring partner, Brian Kenny, who insists the play should be an error. (Reynolds argues Castro lost the ball off a glare in the Wrigley Field afternoon.)
The sheer amount of staff going through games, editing and archiving, stands out from my time at the MLB Network studios. Many people tend to think of baseball as a backward sport, stuck in the past. Baseball might relish its history more than other American sports; those covering it have also embraced the digital age as much as any sport. Consumption of the game has never been easier thanks to the MLB At Bat app. Think to Thursday night and Mariano Rivera’s emotional farewell to Yankee Stadium — video from it was available almost instantly.
The massive tape library is a VHS nerd’s dream come true. It houses rows upon rows of footage, from every episode of “This Week in Baseball,” to grainy footage of Christy Mathewson, to four tapes of highlights from the late Hideki Irabu’s time with the Chiba Lotte Marines. The history of baseball resides here. My mind drifts to that oft cited episode of “The Twilight Zone” with Burgess Meredith — “Time Enough at Last.” If there was a place to be stuck in the apocalypse, this wouldn’t be a bad contender, although the irony in that scenario would be that the power would not work.
Back to reality, it’s not long before I’m face-to-face with the guys who make MLB Network go: more former players-turned-analysts.
I step inside Mitch Williams’ office positioned behind the “wall” in Studio 42, which will soon get the “Man Cave” treatment. For now, it features a futon — for the nights he doesn’t want to drive back to his home in Southern New Jersey — a fridge, two TVs, suit racks and a terrific poster featuring caricatures of Williams and his 1993 Phillies teammate John Kruk.
Williams is a bit of a lightning rod for MLB Tonight viewers, with his hard-line, old school approach to the game. The Heard on MLB Tonight twitter account features a picture of Williams, with the “stats crowd” poking holes in some of the non-statistically backed up opinions stated on live television by some of the network’s analysts.
“I’d never be considered a scholastic by any stretch of the imagination, but when it comes to baseball I’ve got a photographic memory. I don’t use notes when I’m on the air. If I read it, I know it,” Williams said matter of factly. “Everybody’s got an opinion. I look at it for what it is. I’m going to state my opinion and if people like it or agree with it, great but if they don’t it’s my opinion. I played the game professionally for 16 years. I’m not going to tell an accountant how to do his job.”
Williams is not without his sense of humor, such as when he is asked about the hardest adjustment to working in television.
“Wearing a suit,” he deadpans in his distinctive drawl. “It’s like putting earrings on a pig.”
Walking back toward the control room, I bump into Sean Casey, who offers a quick handshake and smile. The man nicknamed “The Mayor” lives up to his “great guy” reputation, and is trying to get a Pittsburgh Pirates postseason hat in the mail to a friend before it’s too late.
Casey retired at the relatively young age of 33 to spend more time with his four children in his Pittsburgh area home. The grind of being a professional ballplayer had taken its toll, and the opportunity to work for MLB Network was a perfect change of pace.
“For me, it started when my kids started school. I saw my family 20 times over an 80 day period. I was like, nah,” he said. ”You could have offered me $50 million, knowing what I’d miss what I’ve done these last five years I’d say no way.”
Like most of the analysts employed by MLB Network, working in television a couple nights a week allows them to stay involved in the game but doesn’t take up all their time.
“It’s everyday for seven months. If you’re in playoffs it’s eight,” Casey said. “The more I’ve thought about it, it is a grind but I guess I think more about the troops. They’re grinding. At the end of the day we’re getting paid to play baseball. I wouldn’t say it’s so much a grind. It’s mentally challenging job because it’s a performance-based job. You have to perform in front of people who are fanatical. It’s what you choose to do.”
These guys now choose to go under the lights of Studio 3 every night of the season, helping contribute to 2,630 live studio hours per year.
After three hours, the “MLB Tonight” set undergoes a shift change. Like hockey players getting over the boards, off go Williams, Lowell and Severino. Amsinger, Reynolds and Dan Plesac come on. Through the shift, the near-brawl between the Brewers and Braves remains the topic of the night.
And so it goes each night, for seven months of the year, live, without a net, and never knowing where the next hot topic or must-see moment will emerge.