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November 26, 2008

On the Beat

Programming Diversity and Other Graces

by John Perrotto

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With Thanksgiving only a day away, there is something new for baseball fans to look forward to and potentially be thankful for. In this time when we pause to consider all of the things that we often take for granted, there is also the upcoming arrival of the MLB Network, which will launch on January 1 and be available in nearly 50 million homes, making it the largest network debut in cable television history. The network will air 24 hours a day, and include live game broadcasts, replays of classic games, and original programming.

Major League Baseball has long discussed having its own network, and that is finally coming to fruition. While MLB may have lagged behind the NFL, NBA, and NHL, all three of which already have their own channels, it appears it will be making up for lost time by delivering quality from day one, particularly with what will be their two signature shows, MLB Tonight and Hot Stove.

MLB Tonight will be a live nightly show broadcast from its studios in Secaucus, New Jersey, that will air from 6 p.m. ET until the final game of the night every Monday through Saturday during the regular season, and will be the network's answer to ESPN's acclaimed Baseball Tonight. MLBN's feature show in the off-season months will be Hot Stove, a one-hour program that will air on weeknights at 7 p.m. ET.

They've put together an interesting lineup of talent for the shows, led by host Matt Vasgersian. Al Leiter, Harold Reynolds, and Joe Magrane will be the primary studio analysts, while Trenni Kusnierek and Hazel Mae will serve as the lead reporters. "One of the things we're most excited about is they all have great versatility," MLBN president and CEO Tony Petitti said. "What we were looking for in analysts were guys who could play the game at the highest level, but also those who are really comfortable talking about it and bring great experience. In Hazel and Trenni's case, they followed local clubs, and are able to function both as hosts and reporters. We have a great, diverse team."

Vasgersian has been considered one of the top television play-by-play talents in baseball; he spent the past seven years calling Padres games after a five-year stint with the Brewers, while also doing NFL games on Fox. However, he is more than willing to make the transition from booth to studio for such a heralded startup project. "I was intrigued by this concept when I heard about MLB starting their own network, and everything I heard about the facility, the operation, and specifically about the people involved, got me more and more excited," Vasgersian said. "I fashion myself as the David Nied of the MLB Network: first pick for the expansion team, I'll make very little impact in my career, and then fade into obscurity after two or three seasons at the big-league level."

In contrast, Leiter, Reynolds, and Magrane all had more distinguished playing careers than Nied. Since retiring following the 2005 season, Leiter has been a color commentator on Yankees telecasts, and he's looking forward to moving to the national stage. "Having met Tony Petitti and pondered the opportunity and the possibilities, this is future stuff," Leiter said. "To be part of a ground-floor operation, with Major League Baseball and its backing, is exciting. We're going to be able to do analysis and cut-ins and in-depth programs. I think the possibilities are endless when it comes to covering a sport." Reynolds is a veteran of such shows, having been a fixture on Baseball Tonight for 11 years before his abrupt dismissal by ESPN in 2007. (This was following a sexual harassment charge by an intern; Reynolds contested the allegation, and eventually settled a lawsuit with the network.) Magrane had been the color man on Tampa Bay Rays' TV broadcasts since their inception in 1998, and was also the baseball analyst for NBC at the last three Olympics.

Reynolds believes that MLB Tonight will quickly become a hit with the fans. "I think I speak for all of us that this is about serving the fan," Reynolds said. "There is no greater vehicle in sports right now that is going to be able to do what we're doing in servicing the fans, in and out of the games, with an extended show with analysis, programming, and different things of this sort. It's time for baseball to have a 24-hour network. If you're a baseball fan, you're going to love it. I'm excited to be a part of it."

Kusnierek and Mae are both experienced baseball reporters: Kusnierek has covered the Pirates and Brewers for Fox Sports Net, and Mae has covered the Blue Jays for Rogers Sports Net and the Red Sox for NESN. "I am over the moon to be a part of the inaugural on-air talent," Mae said. It's a special opportunity for me to leave New England and Boston, where they live, eat, and breathe baseball." Kusnierek is enthusiastic as well, observing that, "I think when you get into this business, your dream is to always work at the highest level, and this for me is a dream come true. I've been a huge baseball fan since I was a kid, and I have never been more excited for an opportunity in my career. I really look forward to being a part of the beginning of what I believe will be a really successful network."

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Creativity and the Pirates have been mutually exclusive terms throughout much of the franchise's run of 16 consecutive losing seasons, but the Pirates tried something different recently. They've signed a pair of cricket players and aspiring pitchers from India, left-hander Rinku Singh and right-hander Dinesh Kumar Patel, to minor league contracts, with what are believed to be signing bonuses of $10,000 each.

Both were among 30,000 young men who tried out as contestants for Million Dollar Arm, a reality television show in India. The contest, whose winner was determined by who could throw the most strikes at 85 mph or greater, was won by Singh, who took the $100,000 grand prize and a chance to train in the United States under University of Southern California pitching coach Tom House in Los Angeles. Long-time international scout Ray Poitevint was so impressed by what he saw that he suggested that House, a former major league pitcher and pitching coach, should train Singh.

The 20-year-old, 6'2", 195-pound Singh, and the 19-year-old, 5'11", 185-pound Patel, will both report to spring training in Bradenton, Florida, in March with the rest of the Pirates' minor leaguers. Because their game experience consists of pitching in scrimmages against a junior college team, both are expected to remain in extended spring training before making their professional debuts next June in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Both threw before a battery of scouts from major league organizations earlier this month in Tempe, Arizona. Patel's fastball was clocked as high as 93 mph, while Singh did not show the same velocity as he had during the Million Dollar Arm contest, but was still intriguing. "It's a fascinating story, and we're interested to see where it goes," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We're excited to bring them into the organization and help them try to reach their goal of pitching in the major leagues."

While China is considered the next great untapped foreign market, Huntington believes that India could also be fertile ground for baseball players. "It's a nation of 1.1 billion, and the national sport is cricket, which like baseball involves throwing, hitting, catching, and running," Huntington said. "I've always felt that in a nation of that size, that there has to be some young cricket players whose skills would transfer to baseball. We'll see in another 15 years what happens. Maybe these guys will be pioneers, or maybe they will be blips on the radar. It's certainly worth finding out."

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Clint Hurdle spent the 1997-98 seasons as the Rockies' hitting coach when Don Baylor was the manager. Now, in a reversal, Baylor is returning to the Rockies as their hitting coach while Hurdle prepares for his seventh season as the team's manager. Baylor had been out of baseball since serving as the Mariners' hitting coach in 2005, but when Hurdle invited him to be part of the National League coaching staff in this year's All-Star Game, that set the wheels in motion for Baylor's return to the Rockies after Alan Cockrell was fired as hitting coach. Baylor will be trying to improve a lineup that slipped from 2007; the Rockies were eighth in the NL in runs scored with an average of 4.6 per game last season, after posting a 5.3 mark, second-best in the league, in 2007. Perhaps more pointedly, the team's Equivalent Average declined from the league's sixth-best mark (.264) to a ninth-place, below-average .258.

"It will be different, coming back as a coach, but with the relationship we have, I know I can tell Clint things and not worry about repercussions," Baylor told the Rocky Mountain News. "Clint knows I am coming back to be his coach and help him be successful. The last three years, I was looking for a situation that fit, but nothing fits like this one. I was once hired to wear the uniform, and now to be going back is pretty special."

The Rockies decided to overhaul their coaching staff following a 74-88 season that came on the heels of the franchise's first World Series appearance in 2007. Baylor was the Rockies' original manager from 1993-98. "It is funny how life works out," Hurdle said. "This wasn't the plan, but it is something that had been in the back of my mind since we decided to make some adjustments. As our conversations continued, it became evident to me his passion for the game is in place. This is about what he can do to make a difference, to help our hitters."

The Rockies have also added a second former major league manager to the staff by hiring Jim Tracy as bench coach. Tracy managed the Dodgers from 2001-05 and led them to the NL West title in 2004, and was the Pirates skipper from 2006-07, a period of time in which they lost 189 games in two seasons. "Jim has a lot of time in the National League West, and that should be a real asset for us," Hurdle said.

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AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Angels are said to be willing to match the Yankees' offer of six years and $140 million to free-agent left-hander CC Sabathia, but they will not go 10 years on a contract to re-sign first baseman Mark Teixeira, who will likely become New York's object of affection if they don't land Sabathia. If they are unable to retain Teixeira, the Angels will consider signing free-agent outfielder Pat Burrell, and subsequently moving him to first base. ... Right-hander A.J. Burnett has not ruled out re-signing with the Blue Jays as a free agent, and he is also still believed to be considering the Braves, Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees, and Phillies. ... The Twins would like to trade outfielder Delmon Young for a left-side infielder, which they feel would have the added benefit of opening up a spot in the lineup for outfielder Denard Span in left. ... The Tigers have renewed their attempts to trade for Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson (who is again drawing interest from the Dodgers as well); the Tigers have also inquired about Marlins catcher Matt Treanor and made signing free-agent left-handed reliever Joe Beimel a priority, though Beimel is also being pursued by the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Mets. ... The Red Sox appear to be the favorite to sign Japanese amateur pitcher Junichi Tazawa, who many international scouts insist is not worth the $6 million major league contract he is reportedly seeking.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Dodgers have ruled out the idea of re-signing shortstop Rafael Furcal because of concerns about the back surgery he had this year, making it that much more likely that he will land with either the Giants or Athletics, though the Reds are a potential dark horse. ... The Cubs have more interest in trading for Royals outfielder David DeJesus than Mark Teahen, but it will take more than right-hander Jason Marquis to pry DeJesus loose. If they can't make a trade, the Cubs would also prefer to sign Raul Ibanez to play right field rather than go after Bobby Abreu on the free-agent market. ... The Braves have talked to the White Sox about right-hander Javier Vazquez and right fielder Jermaine Dye, though no deal seems imminent. ... The Reds also have interest in Dye, but will need to offer more than disappointing right-hander Homer Bailey to get anything done. ... After experiencing sticker shock on right-hander Derek Lowe (initially their chief target in free agency), the Mets are now considering signing right-hander Jon Garland or trading for Vazquez or Rays right-handers Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine, though Tampa Bay wants more in return than reliever Aaron Heilman for either starting pitcher. The Mets also would consider free agents Trevor Hoffman and Kerry Wood if they are unable to sign Francisco Rodriguez or Brian Fuentes to be their closer. There are some around the Mets who believe they will become players in the Manny Ramirez sweepstakes. ... The Brewers are considering going after Rodriguez if, as expected, they are unable to re-sign Sabathia. ... While the Nationals would love to sign Teixeira, they know that outfielder Adam Dunn is a more realistic free-agent option to fill their need for a power hitter. ... In addition to Ramon Vazquez, the Diamondbacks are also interested in free agents Damion Easley and Mark Loretta as potential solutions for second base. ... The Cardinals are in pursuit of left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes on the free-agent market. ... In addition to Beimel, the Rockies are considering a host of lefty relievers on the open market, including Alan Embree, Will Ohman, and Brian Shouse, while also trying to re-sign lefty Glendon Rusch. ... The Astros have targeted free-agent catchers Paul Bako and David Ross as possibilities to share time with J.R. Towles behind the plate.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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