On a typical evening in the long and, at times, grueling baseball season, MLB Network’s flagship program MLB Tonight gives 50 to 100 updates of action across the major leagues. Needless to say, Wednesday night’s regular-season finale was anything but typical.
With four games holding wild-card implications and two teams (the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals) looking to pull off historic late-season comebacks, it could have been overwhelming for a network to stay on top of all of the proceedings.
“We do this seven days a week now when it comes to updates and live look-ins all across the league,” says Lorraine Fisher, media relations manager, MLB Network. “So it is sort of the bread and butter of our formula and how the show is formatted, but [Wednesday] night was certainly on another level.”
By the end of the night, the Atlanta Braves had been eliminated in an extra-inning heartbreaker, and the Boston Red Sox, one strike away from victory, coughed up the game to the Baltimore Orioles in the bottom of the ninth and opened the door for the Tampa Bay Rays, who completed a comeback from a seven-run deficit with a walk-off homer against the New York Yankees. An extra hour on-air and 250 updates later, baseball had its playoffs set, and water-cooler conversation for the next morning was secure.
The events of the night were stunning. So much so, that a video of studio analysts Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac failing to contain their shock at the game-winning hits in in Baltimore and Tampa Bay went viral yesterday. MLB Network SVP of Production John Entz acknowledged that it was a very similar scene “behind the glass.”
“It was probably the wildest control room I’ve ever been in,” he laughs. “When you’re producing these live events, just like when you’re at home, you can’t predict what’s going to happen. We’re fans of the game just like people at home are. We kept turning to each other and saying we just couldn’t believe that this was happening, and that happened several different times throughout the night. It was pretty unbelievable.”
Staying on Top of It All
MLB Network came into the night fully prepared to ping-pong their way across the country to tell the story of how (and if) the two final playoff berths would be claimed.
Field reporters were positioned at each of the four ballparks: studio host Paul Severino in Houston, correspondent Sam Ryan in Atlanta, former big-leaguer Joe Magrane (who interviewed Evan Longoria minutes after his walk-off homer) in Tampa, and MASN reporter Amber Theoharris in Baltimore.
Shifting from single-game to split-screens with every major play, MLB Network also cut to shots from one of its popular Ballpark Cams of either the winning team’s or the losing team’s reaction in the dugout.
“Our goal was to turn things around real time as closely as possible,” says Entz. “Speed and immediacy was our goal. We wanted you to get the updates as they were happening. [Editorially,] there weren’t too many choices to make because that was our sole focus.”
What made Wednesday night unique was not only the incredibly unlikely scenarios that played out on the diamond but the way in which fans were able to experience it. Live video look-ins, social media, and smartphones all connected fans in a way that made the wildest night in baseball history possible only today.
“Scoreboard-watching was a phrase that was invented because that’s actually what people did,” says Entz. “Our show throughout the year is built to do what we did [Wednesday] night. Our goal every night is to make you sit at home and feel like you’re keeping up to date with everything that’s going on around the league. [Wednesday] night was obviously on hyper speed, and it was just a great example of what our show can showcase, and the drama obviously added to that.”
Ballpark Cam Shines
MLB Network’s robotic Ballpark Cams are positioned in 29 of the 30 stadiums across baseball (only the Florida Marlins do not have one, because they will open a new stadium in April), typically located beyond the outfield wall and right along the dugout pointed at the benches away from the action. The insider access they provide are one feature that separates MLB Network’s programming from its competition.
“We’ve spoken about how our usage of Ballpark Cam is probably the single greatest place that we’ve increased our value this year,” says Entz. “We’re able to get these unique camera angles that may not fit in your traditional game broadcast, but, after the fact, we often find the dugout shots of players celebrating or the drama of a near miss. It’s great to see, and [Wednesday] night was the peak of that.”
Ballpark Cam brought back spectacular visuals of players reacting to scoreboard changes, as evident when the Orioles-Red Sox score went final and a Ballpark Cam shot of the Rays’ dugout showed the team celebrating. Tampa won their game only three minutes later.
“Everything went really well for us technically,” says Fisher, who hopes that the playoffs (which begin this afternoon) can be half this exciting. “We were firing on all cylinders.”