The Home Run Derby has always occupied a strange place in the sports television landscape. It’s a made-up event for television, but one that has the sporting public’s attention. It easily outdraws the Stanley Cup Finals every year—even in down years—and the 7.1 million viewers who watched the event in 2015 was more than the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals between the Cavs and Celtics averaged (6.3 million) this year.
This year’s Derby on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN) from Miami is particularly interesting given a number of factors: First, there is genuine hype with the inclusion of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, a pair of young and charismatic long ball hitters from two major media markets (New York and Miami). Then there is the devaluing of the traditional All Star Game (8 p.m. ET Tuesday, FOX) given the game no longer carries the home field element of the World Series. The Derby will also have a new host (ESPN’s Karl Ravech) whose style is dramatically different than Chris Berman, always a polarizing figure no matter what event he called.
In an interview with SI.com this week, Ravech said he will approach the assignment much like he has always appeared on air: prepared, informative and low key. There will be no signature home run calls or screaming about nearby towns. Berman is a close friend of Ravech and he reached out this week to wish him luck.
“Chris had a unique approach to this and I think everybody associated the Derby as much with him as they did with the guys hitting the baseballs,” Ravech said. “He brought this to a bar as a broadcaster that I would not even attempt to jump over. But having Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and the rest of the field, I can hopefully complement their ability to take us to a higher level. If I can be a condiment to the main course, that is my goal. What I think has helped me is not to rely on any shtick and to be like the Chris Fowler or Mike Tirico’s of the world. They are informed and connected and I think the fan appreciates that or at least I hope he or she does.”
Berman was a polarizing figure on this assignment, a sure bet to trend on Twitter during the night. If you liked his style, you undoubtedly felt his bravado added to the showmanship of the event. If you disliked what he did, words such as self-aggrandizement or vainglorious might come up.
I asked Ravech if how Berman was perceived by many for this event factored into his approach this year.
“I would answer that question by saying I’ve been at ESPN since 1993 and seen guys like Berman, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann and others who were uniquely talented in what they did, and to some degree rely upon a fantastic style that clearly appeared to a massively amount of people for a long period of time. In Chris’s case with the Derby, you have to recognize this had been one of the most highly rated events of the year (in baseball) and in large tribute to what he was able to do. I think the struggles for the Derby in recent years were about lack of real enthusiasm from some of the game’s best home run hitters. They did not necessarily want to do it and if they don’t want to do it, the fans have a bit of an apathy to the event. Now that you have a Judge and Stanton embracing it, I think the fans can get excited about. I don’t think Chris's polarization would cause a viewer to turn it off because I would hope that you were not just tuning in to hear him say back-back-back. You are tuning in to see where Giancarlo Stanton hits a baseball. … But I do think Chris should get some great credit because when that event was at its pinnacle, he was perfect for it.”
Last year’s Derby drew an event-low 5.524 million viewers and was way down from the event’s high in 2008 when 9.1 million watched Josh Hamilton bash 28 home runs in the first round before falling to Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins in the final round. But I agree with Ravech: The event is poised to be up significantly this year given the appearance of Judge and Stanton (clouting balls in his hometown). An equally interesting television story to watch will be what Fox draws for the All-Star Game. Last year’s broadcast hit an all-time low with 8.71 million viewers and the first time the event failed to crack 10 million viewers. This year’s game has drawn little promotional buzz. If Judge and Stanton perform in the Derby, that could give a boost to Fox on the next night.
Ravech is also part of another sports broadcasting story that will get attention as the season closes. On Monday ESPN’s Dan Shulman told Sports Illustrated that he is stepping away from Sunday Night Baseball next season to get a better work-life balance. Refreshingly, Ravech did not go Kofi Annan when asked if he was interested in the job. He said he wants it. “This is one of our key properties and I would be honored to do it,” Ravech said. “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.”
That decision is expected to be made by ESPN management in the offseason and given ESPN’s cost-cutting in baseball it would be stunning if the job does not go to a current ESPN baseball gamecaller such as Ravech, Jon Sciambi or Dave Flemming.
Given his long tenure at ESPN and that he is most associated with baseball, the devaluing of Baseball Tonight by ESPN management was a tough one for Ravech. He was diplomatic about the larger reasons behind the decision but did not sugarcoat his disappointment about ESPN’s reduction of content in the sport.
“Being in the room with the entire Baseball Tonight staff when we were informed that we were going to become a Sunday only show, I can tell you I saw several people in the room who were crying because they were so upset about it,” Ravech said. “I did not agree with the idea that this is good for ESPN. I certainly would like to see more baseball and would like to have more Baseball Tonight on.
“That being said, I do understand that the landscape has changed dramatically when Peter Gammons, Harold Reynolds and I were doing the show and it was appointment TV. There were not RSNs (Regional Sports Networks) at the time and I think that is the biggest reason regarding diminishing the highlight appetite for baseball. People who watch the Mets, Yankees, Red Sox or whatever your team is, you stick with your local broadcast after the game. I understand where the audience has gone, but I don’t understand ceding the property or territory to anyone else. There are a lot of factors beyond a Baseball Tonight show that went into a decision like that. It was way beyond our control. In the long term, I hope we can bring Baseball Tonight back. I’d be lying if I said it was something I was happy about.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the weeks most notable sports media stories)
1. The NBC Sports Group made an interesting hire last week by bringing on Jim Mackay as an on-course reporter for the Golf Channel and NBC’s coverage of The Open, FedExCup Playoffs and Presidents Cup in 2017. Mackay caddied for Phil Mickelson for 25 years, a tenure that included five major championships and 42 PGA TOUR wins for the golfer. NBC Sports said this is the first time a full-time PGA Tour caddie had been signed for a tournament broadcasting role.
“His experiences on Phil's bag for all those wins and some of the excruciatingly close second place finishes gives him insight into how things are happening out on the course, and what players and caddies are going through,” said NBC Sports golf producer Tommy Roy. “The caddie's perspective is something new to golf television. We had the experiment a couple years back at the RSM [RSM Classic in St. Simons Island, Ga.] where we had Bones and John Wood working for us to hear the caddie perspective, and I was really blown away by how good both those guys were. In thinking about the possibility of bringing one of them on, Bones became available first, and so we were glad to have him join the team. I just can't say enough about what I know he's going to bring to the table, especially at [Royal] Birkdale, where the role of the caddie is magnified exponentially with those conditions there.”
2. ESPN’s Joe Tessitore was on the mic for one of the most controversial boxing decisions of 2017 (or any year): Jeff Horn’s victory over Manny Pacquiao at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia. I emailed him a couple of questions this week for some insight how he saw things ringside.
SI.com: How crazy was the post fight scene for you?
Tessitore: In the ring post fight you couldn't write the Hollywood script—Horn being ecstatic in a life changing moment and then dedicating the fight to his wife, saying that his “greatest day is yet to come, as she is pregnant.” It was spectacular. I couldn't believe it played out that way. Three times prior in the broadcast I referred to this being just like Rocky. When he ended I said, "The only thing missing from Jeff Horn's interview was “Yo Adrian, I did it!" That was a gift of a postfight served up to us, and I thought the live SportsCenter we did topped it. I loved the post fight scene. It was so raw. I've known Pacquaio and his entire camp for many, many years so I didn't hesitate to throw down my headsets and get to the ring to tell Manny to get to me ASAP. Horn was already there and it was great. To have them side by side with us on SportsCenter, and for [analyst] Teddy [Atlas] to tell Horn to his face, "I thought you lost," was so authentic. Standing between Manny and Horn at that moment on-air as they showed such respect for the other was special.
SI.com: I'm not sure I've ever seen an analyst call out the officials at an event as Teddy Atlas did. How did you view his comments?
Tessitore: Teddy has been critical of judges for years, and he is without peer as a boxing mind. Still, you have to understand he isn't just a boxing analyst. The sport is his entire life. He views himself as a protector of the fighters, and add in the fact that he may be the most passionate and overly expressive sports analyst on TV. His comments tend to be thrown like haymakers. With his powerful opinion, the viewers can get knocked over by it all. Many ringside observers in Brisbane didn't have as much of an issue with the Horn win. I think Teddy himself would tell you to not let his views on the scores get in the way of what was an amazing night of action and a massive global event. That was an extremely entertaining fight. That fight delivered greatly to the fans. I felt the fight was closer than what Teddy saw, as did former world champion and Pacquiao conqueror Timothy Bradley who was on the call with us. I gave Jeff Horn more of the early rounds than Teddy did. When you sit against the ring you see things differently than the TV audience does. I don't think Teddy's scorecard was that far off at all however, though I favored Horn's earlier work. I am going to rewatch the fight when I get back home and score it fresh. Did I think Pacman won? Yes. Do I believe the hackneyed knee jerk reaction that it was a black eye for boxing? Absolutely not. It was a tough fight that Teddy favored Manny in by appreciating Manny being more technically sound and accurate, compared to the awkward rugged and aggressive pure desire of Horn. Pacquaio himself wasn't outraged. He was a class act and gracious in defeat.
3. How is the morale at Fox Sports right now? Said one staffer: “What is shi--ier than sh--ty?"
3a. ESPN's Dan Shulman is stepping away from Sunday Night Baseball after this season.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• Vital reading from Mark Bowden, writing for The Atlantic: How To Deal with North Korea
• Gut-wrenching read from Julie Lurie of Mother Jones on a flood of children—having lost their parents to drug use or overdose—are living with foster families or relatives
• An addictive link from TIME: See How Well You Can Draw All 50 States
• A remarkable story by Washington Post reporter Craig M. Whitlock on the FBI’s investigation of complaints that Bobby Knight groped women at U.S. spy agency
• Via Bloomberg: A massively under-covered story: U.S. power plants being breached by hackers working for foreign government
• From Janet Reitman of the New York Times Magazine: How the death of a Muslim recruit revealed a culture of brutality in the Marines
• Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News, on his brain cancer
• From David Forrest of The Guardian: The political message hidden on the goalposts at the 1978 World Cup
• What to do with the swastika in the attic
• From Jana Pruden of The Walrus: Thirteen years ago, a five-year-old girl named Tamra Keepness disappeared in Regina. She has never been found
• Via History.com: Does This Photo Show Amelia Earhart After Her Plane Disappeared?
4a. Sports pieces of note:
• From Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times: She was his rock. Now a failed NFL player is accused of killing his mother
• New York Times sports columnist Michael Powell on U.S. high jumper Chaunte Lowe
• From SI’s Alex Abnos and Dan Greene: The oral history of NBA Jam
• From SI’s Alex Prewitt: In the early 90s, thousands of newborns were named after Shaquille O'Neal. Not all of them are happy about it
• The Guardian examines one of the most famous soccer photos ever
• ESPN’s Peter Keating, on women athletes, concussions and the sports neuro-establishment
• Via The Athletic Toronto: The rise, fall and redemption of the Clune Brothers
• Esquire’s Tim Bella profiles Curt Schilling
• San Diego Union-Tribune sports columnist Nick Canepa pays tribute to his late mentor
5. Big drop for FS1's coverage of the Big3 basketball in Week Two: The broadcast drew 234,000 viewers, down from the 398,000 who watched for the debut.
5a. The second Monday at Wimbledon is always one of the best days of the year in tennis. The ESPN schedule.
5b. Karl Ravech is not the only baseball broadcaster in his family. His 22-year-old son, Sam, is a first-year broadcaster for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, a Double A affiliate of the Giants.
Ravech said Sam wrote sports for his high school outlets and was always around Karl’s assignments, including the MLB postseason. He said he first became aware of Sam’s interest in radio and television when Sam was a junior in high school. “I listen to his games on iHeart Radio,” Ravech said. “It’s great. The world has shrunk and I tune in to every Flying Squirrels game I can. He sounds like a professional radio broadcaster. He did a game in Hartford and it was the first time I entered into his world and his booth as opposed to mine. For somebody who is one year out of college, he sounds appropriate for his age and experience and is getting better every game.”
5c. Filed under biased: Incredibly disappointing to learn my former SI colleague Michael Farber will not be part of the re-launch of TSN’s (Canada) The Reporters, which is akin to ESPN’s The Sports Reporters except much less insufferable. The show moves to a new time on Sundays at 9 a.m. ET beginning September 10 on TSN. Dave Hodge will host with panelists Steve Simmons and Bruce Arthur. Farber (along with Red Fisher) is arguably the greatest living sport writer in Canada. Such a move makes little editorial sense.