Over the last few years, ESPN has wanted its announcing booths to feel more conversational. One of the means to this end has been studio anchors, who are adept at leading discussions, replacing traditional play-by-play men. We saw this with Chris Fowler taking over for Brent Musburger in the top college football spot in 2014, and Steve Levy jumping into the third team last year when Brad Nessler left ESPN for CBS. However, what has been gained in conversational rapport has, in my opinion, been overshadowed by missing the feeling where the announcer’s gravitas gets your juices flowing and conveys the aura that you’re watching a big game.
Marquee announcing jobs don’t open up very often, but the Sunday Night Baseball play-by-play gig is up for grabs right now after Dan Shulman announced he’d be stepping down from that role. Reading the tea leaves in sports media circles, Karl Ravech is the frontrunner for the job, with other in-house candidates including Jon “Boog” Sciambi (who currently calls Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN Radio), Dave Flemming (who calls MLB and college football), and Jason Benetti (who calls home White Sox games on CSN Chicago and a variety of sports for ESPN).
One outside name who will come up for virtually every big announcing job for the foreseeable future is Joe Davis, 29, who replaced Vin Scully on Dodgers telecasts. However, he also calls college football for Fox Sports, and my understanding is his deal there runs at least beyond the start of next MLB season.
It’s not as though Ravech would be jumping into the job with zero play-by-play experience. He calls the Little League World Series and College World Series for ESPN, but he’s not a seasoned lifer like some of the other people ESPN has who are more qualified for the job. When he called the final out of Florida winning the CWS this past June, I don’t think he delivered the narration with requisite excitement and enthusiasm (2:53:15-mark):
However you feel about Jessica Mendoza, a major priority for ESPN is to make her more included in the conversation going forward on Sunday Night Baseball. While Shulman is by all accounts stepping away from the role on his own volition as opposed to being gracefully nudged out, there’s been for whatever reason a feeling of disjointedness with him, Mendoza, and Aaron Boone. Ravech is seen as somebody who would have better chemistry with Mendoza.
It’s easy to see why Ravech would want this job. His primary vehicle, Baseball Tonight, has been greatly deemphasized, and ESPN has even begun outsourcing some of its baseball coverage to MLB Network in the daily simulcast of Intentional Talk.
However, ESPN has shown itself to be profoundly unsentimental in recent years. Gone in recent layoffs are longtime stalwarts Andy Katz, Ed Werder, John Clayton, Merril Hoge, and probably Ron Jaworski. Chris Berman stepped into an emeritus role. One traditional anchor after another has been let go or marginalized, as ESPN seeks to make its studio programming personality-driven.
You know who weren’t let go in the recent round of layoffs? Play-by-play people. In the last decade, as ESPN sought to fortify itself from upstart cable competitors from Fox, NBC, and to a lesser extent CBS, they doubled down on live events.
“[Sunday Night Baseball] is one of our key properties and I would be honored to do it,” Ravech told Richard Deitsch last month. “I would hope that I would be considered to do it. Without making a big case for myself, one of the things I think ESPN appreciates is I have worked with as many different analysts over my career there as anyone in the building. So whatever the Sunday booth is, if it is Jess [Jessica Mendoza] and Aaron [Boone], I have worked with them on a number of different event. If it is someone else, I will have proven I can work with them. I think we have several qualified candidates in house who could do it really well. But, yes, it would be honor to be considered and I’d love to do it.”
Ravech has been with ESPN since 1993, and I am not suggesting they just cast him aside. However, I think a better role for him than Sunday Night Baseball — where ESPN should put a more seasoned and specialized play-by-play professional — is joining the 11 pm SportsCenter rotation with other longtime anchors Kenny Mayne, John Buccigross, Steve Levy, and John Anderson. This is an important property — it airs right after many of ESPN’s live events throughout the year, and leads into Scott Van Pelt. ESPN, in placing a group of familiar faces there, recognizes that.
But, Ravech is not the best choice ESPN has for Sunday Night Baseball play-by-play. When you’re watching the college football playoffs with Chris Fowler, does a part of you not yearn for a dynastic play-by-play caller whose presence alone signifies that the contest is of utmost significance? While ESPN Sunday Night Baseball is not that level of property, and just has one Wild Card game in the MLB playoffs, there are several better choices inside ESPN than Ravech for the job.