MLB Network: The Eternal Baseball Tonight
(Originally posted at TV Barn.)
I'm a baseball fan. So when I learned that Major League Baseball was finally going to join the NFL, NBA, and NHL in creating its own dedicated channel, I was pretty excited. I mean, an entire channel with nothing but baseball -- how great an idea is that?
The MLB Network has been on the air since early January, and as most people over the age of 10 understand, the reality is a whole lot more complicated than the dream was. But it's fair to say that spending a day with MLB Network will give you a good overview of most of the constituencies of modern baseball.
Many baseball fans, most of them aging, are obsessed with the rosy glow of the 20th Century (is it too soon to refer to the 20th as old news?), when baseball was truly the national sport. This is the constituency of Ken Burns' epic documentary, "Baseball," which is airing weekly on MLB Network -- the series' first appearance off of PBS.
It's also the provenance of Bob Costas, who has always professed to be an enormous baseball fan and has now proven it by switching his cable home from HBO to MLB Network. It's hard to think of Costas, who is eternally youthful in a Dick Clark kind of way, as a representative of Baseball's Olden Days. But when MLB Network plays back an NBC Game of the Week broadcast from 25 years ago -- and the network's time slots are currently filled with replays of classic baseball games of yore -- there's Costas, his voice sounding no different than it did when he anchored the Beijing Olympics last summer, calling a Cubs-Cardinals game with Tony Kubek by his side.
I've always liked Costas, but as my colleague Philip Michaels points out, he is someone who tends to speak in a tone best summed up as "the voice of the common fan and guardian of the game." It's a tone that's loved by the national-pastime crowd, but even someone who has sat through the umpteen hours of Ken Burns' documentary can probably admit that Bobby C can get a bit ponderous.
Still, baseball has always been a game that has romanticized its history, so why not spend the off-season -- there's plenty of time to kill! -- by dwelling on the past? But as we roll through spring training and the regular season nears, there's a question about how MLB Network will choose to cover the present.
Know this about me: I'm not a big fan of "SportsCenter," or "Baseball Tonight," or ESPN in general. I know this puts me in the minority when it comes to sports fans, but I've long since grown tired of the catch-phrase-spewing anchor schtick and the ex-jocks whose "analysis" of games is often laughably unsupported by reality, just so they can be provocative and get in faux argumentes with other ex-jock analysts.
If you like that sort of thing, I suspect you will like MLB Network's coverage of the news, which seems to essentially be following the premise, "What if ESPN could only cover baseball?" The off-season version of MLB Network's news show, "Hot Stove," is nothing more than ESPN's "Baseball Tonight," only with more time to fill. It's even got the same neon-and-plasma-screen set design, the kind that screams "Live! From an alien spaceship!"
Owing to the network being owned by Major League Baseball, during the season MLB Network will have amazing access to games, including live cameras in every stadium. I have no doubt that MLB Network will be the best place to get game information and watch highlights. (And to its credit, the network's wall-to-wall coverage of the A-Rod steroid revelations suggest that it will show some degree of editorial independence, even though it's owned and operated by the sport itself.) But I have to admit being depressed that the network has apparently stuck with ESPN's ex-jock-and-print-journalist analyst philosophy.
Look, I'll lay my cards on the table. I'm a paid subscriber to the excellent web site Baseball Prospectus. One of the biggest revolutions in baseball in the past two decades has been an increased use of statistical analysis to reveal new ways of judging the good and the bad in baseball, from managerial decisions to free-agent signings to player performance. Though Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball" is the most popular (to the point of being overused) description of this phenomenon, usually called Sabermetrics, it's just the tip of the iceberg. Statistical analysis is everywhere in baseball now. Even the most stodgy teams employ analysts, because what the analytics guys have revealed is not an opinion, it's truth. Truth that was previously unexposed.
So where are the guys who represent statistical analysis on MLB Network? I can't find them. The ex-jocks aren't there to analyze how the game works. They're there to bring anecdotes from their playing days and apply them to the present. They should only be one part of a rich analytical stew. Instead, they're the beef, the broth and the cornstarch. (I might also point out that most ex-jocks seem to have a very hard time saying anything critical about any current players, being that they're members of the same fraternity.)
Enough of the players. What about the journalists? MLB Network has a close relationship with Sports Illustrated, and employs SI writers Jon Heyman and Tom Verducci. They may be talented writers, but I have deep misgivings about both. I've never been a fan of Verducci, and the incessant lecturing tone of his articles actually was the thing that drove me to cancel my twenty-year-long subscription to SI. Heyman, meanwhile, is the man who -- as delightfully chronicled by the now-defunct Fire Joe Morgan web site -- went out of his way to disparage VORP, one of the most useful new methods of determining player value, and insulted the people who understand what it means.
I'm not saying MLB Network shouldn't have hired Heyman and Verducci. Well, maybe I am saying that. But even if those guys are going to hold down the desk at MLB Network, is it too much to ask for some serious participation from the modern statistical analysis guys? (Would it be catty of me to point that even SI's print magazine has imported analysis from Baseball Prospectus, perhaps in acknowledgement of the lack of understanding of modern ways of viewing baseball by its own writers?)
I'll admit it -- stats guys can be boring. As much as I loved following the election polls on FiveThirtyEight.com, operated by Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus, watching Silver on TV always made me uneasy. And I'm not saying that the network should suddenly become a giant walking, talking database with all analysis happening by spreadsheet. But surely there are stats guys out there who can clean up nicely, string a few sentences together, and hold their own in arguments with Harold Reynolds and Jon Heyman. You'd think Major League Baseball would know where to find them. So, MLB Network, where are they?
MLB Network seems to have done a good job servicing the fans of baseball's rich history, the fantasy nuts who want a fast-paced highlight show, and the ESPN viewers who (apparently) enjoy the punditry of ex-jocks who like to talk about how gritty Jason Varitek is and how much heart he's shown in playing for two World Series winners in Boston. But who's going to look at the stats with a steel eye and dare to suggest that there's a giant fork sticking out of Varitek's back?
[Jason Snell is the editorial director of Macworld.]