A review of last night's ESPN Sunday Night Baseball just as soon as I find a ballpark in America where a higher percentage of fans wear their team colors*…
It's a long season, we know, and you can't expect a stellar showing every week, but that doesn't excuse the mediocre-at-best offering of this week's episode of ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. With so many great episodes already aired—the introduction of Ichiro to the already eccentric Yankees' cast, the Emmy-contender known simply as "Bryce Harper's debut", the producers' surprising choice to derail the R.A. Dickey feel-good story with some true conflict back in June—we must hold this season of SNB to a higher standard and last night's episode just didn't cut it.
Going into the weekend, there was speculation that the producers would tackle one of the storylines that's been playing out in the background of many of this season's episodes but had yet to take center-stage: the race between the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Central. The challenges placed in front of Pittsburgh as they fight for respectability for the first time since Sam Malone was still tending bar promised to make for great tv. When it was finally revealed that ESPN would stick with the more tried-and-true-yet-mostly-meaningless Brewers versus Cardinals plot, there was definite disappointment among the show's many fans. Great television shows always step up when faced with big potential clashes (think Game of Thrones' "The Battle of Blackwater" or even Parks and Rec's "The Debate"), but the ESPN showrunner chose to sidestep the whole issue, allowing Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to play out offscreen. Very disappointing.
Still, the show must go on and our usual cast of characters—Dan Schulman, Orel Hershiser, Terry Francona, and Buster Olney with his quick pop-ins—got us going. From beautiful St. Louis, Missouri, a town famous for its Arch and the "best fans in baseball", the scene was set in Act One: we were looking at a showdown between the teams' two biggest sluggers, Ryan Braun and Matt Holliday. Both players have been having MVP-caliber years, each slugging home runs and knocking in teammates at a high clip, so focusing the action on those two made sense. Some minor storylines were introduced—Marco Estrada's bad luck when it comes to earning wins, the Cards' "versatile" players like Daniel Descalso—but the major action was clearly meant to follow Braun and Holliday.
The problem was that that plotline fizzled out before Budweiser could even air their first commercial. Braun had nothing going at the plate all day and even the Busch Stadium crowd refused to cooperate in the storyline. It was boring and without drama, a bit surprising for someone as controversial and disliked in St. Louis as Braun (plus, where were the boos?). Holliday was a little better, but not much. In the third inning, while Schulman and company struggled to find something interesting to say about their show's star, Holliday laced a double over the head of Milwaukee centerfielder Carlos Gomez, providing the episode's first bit of excitement. Unfortunately, things didn't go well for Holliday after that, with Gomez making a terrific catch in the next at-bat to double him off.
And that's where last night's episode showed its biggest weakness. With the A-story proving to be a dud, the producers had plenty of chances to tease out and expand on some great moments: Gomez's double-play, the great 1-6-4 double play from Marco Estrada, the beautiful throwback uniforms worn by the Cardinals. Instead, viewers were given a token replay and then shuffled into the next awkward conversation about events happening elsewhere. In Mad Men, when Matthew Weiner realizes that the Don Draper storyline isn't going anywhere, he doesn't have Burt Cooper butt-in with stories about his old friend Dr. Lyle Evans or 1930s Madison Avenue. No, he highlights Peggy's descent into the 1964 beatnik scene, Pete's extraordinarily terrible home life, or even Cosgrove's science-fiction writing. Carlos Gomez isn't Elizabeth Moss, I know, but anything's better than a discussion of baseball towns you've played in, Terry.
It's a hard task the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball team is given every week. The drama involved with this program is nowhere near as obvious as, say, that of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Producers never know how their carefully structured narrative will play with audiences until it actually airs and, by then, it might be too late. That's why the second and third storylines are so important. In tonight's episode, it was that preparation that saved the show from being unwatchable. The Descalso and Estrada storylines seemed so insignificant early on, but they proved to be the night's best bit of writing. Let's hope ESPN learns from this and improves in the future. It would be a shame to see another cable show fall into the doldrums of safe, unsatisfying storylines. One season spent on Hershel's magic, zombie-free farm was enough, thank you very much.
* Apologies to Alan Sepinwall