Fox's baseball telecasts walk fine line both on and off field

Media Watch

June 14, 1996|By Milton Kent

From beginning to end of each week's Fox baseball game, there are new faces, new pieces of technological wizardry and new approaches to telecasting the sport that the Grand Old Game never has seen.

But -- and this will throw the baseball purists for a loop -- most of the Fox philosophy in covering the game is as down-to-earth as anyone could expect.

"It's a fine line we walk. We don't want to bastardize the game of baseball. There's not a lot more new stuff you can do," said Fox producer Carol Langley, who headed the production team on Saturday's Orioles-Chicago White Sox broadcast from Camden Yards.

Baseball's image certainly can use some gussying up, but there are those around the sport who question whether Fox -- the network of Al Bundy, Bart Simpson, "Melrose Place" and animated robots during its hockey coverage -- is the appropriate guardian of the game's traditions.

The truth is, "baseball purists" -- the kinds of people who can recite the batting averages of the last two players off the bench for the 1923 Chicago Cubs -- are, by nature, the most obsessive people in all of sports, and probably won't like Fox's coverage, even if every crew turns in the kind of high-quality telecast that Baltimoreans got Saturday.

Langley, 33, and director Ray Tipton, 48 -- who have nearly 40 years of combined television experience -- made cursory plans for the weekly telecast starting Thursday night.

The next day was a whirlwind of activity, that started with editing of clips at Home Team Sports' Bethesda studios. By mid-afternoon, interviews with Chicago's Harold Baines and Robin Ventura, and with Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar and manager Davey Johnson of the Orioles have been shot at the stadium for inclusion during the game.

Next came a marathon planning meeting with the seven people who form the hub of this production team, one of four Fox employs for its regional coverage: Langley; Tipton; play-by-play man John Rooney; analyst Jeff Torborg; associate director Cathie Hunt, the human link between Baltimore and Fox's Los Angeles headquarters; broadcast associate Bobby Speck, who makes sure the graphics are compiled; and Butch Baird, who updates the stats throughout the game.

By the end of the night, the collegial meeting broke up with the decision being made to key on the White Sox's improved pitching and the effect of Alomar and Brady Anderson on the Orioles' attack as the game's story lines.

They would be, however, unable to take advantage of Fox's one groundbreaking area, sound, since neither Johnson nor Chicago manager Terry Bevington would allow themselves to be miked, nor could they use a bag with a microphone in it.

If Friday was a whirlwind, Saturday was a vortex, with the work day starting well before breakfast for the 1 p.m. launch time, and a flurry of movement around the twin production trucks in the bowels of Camden Yards.

At 9 a.m., Tipton, a nine-time local Emmy winner, instructed the six cameramen on everything from how they were to follow the runners to how much of the subject's body to get in their shots.

By 10: 30, Langley, the first woman to produce a network baseball telecast, and Tipton had assumed their places in the truck, where they'd stay until the game ended around 4: 15 p.m. xTC Fifteen minutes later, an interview with Frank Thomas for the pre-game show, had been shot. By 11: 15, a stand-up with Rooney and Torborg among the building crowd on Eutaw Street had been done.

All that was left was the game, and the telecast went smoothly, apart from two noticeable glitches -- a failure of the graphics computer to produce the Fox Box that shows the score, game conditions and diamond with base-runner indicators until the third inning, and a replay of Danny Tartabull's first-inning triple that doesn't materialize until the seventh.

The game -- a 2-1 White Sox win -- was a broadcaster's delight, Langley said, with drama and intrigue. The Chicago story line held up well, as starter James Baldwin and a collection of relievers kept the Orioles in check.

The game's defining moments both in the game and in the production came in the sixth, when the Orioles loaded the bases with none out.

Even before the inning started, Torborg, a former catcher and manager, noted Baldwin bending over at the waist to start the inning, a clear sign of fatigue, and sure enough, leadoff hitter Rafael Palmeiro crunched a double to right, making the former catcher and manager look like a genius.

Meanwhile, five batters later, Langley and Tipton pulled a little mastery of their own in the truck. With Jeffrey Hammonds batting and two out, Chicago reliever Matt Karchner slipped a backdoor slider over the inside part of the plate to move the count to 1-2.

Langley spotted replays of both the pitch and Hammonds' reaction, and notified Tipton, who called for both, getting them on the air with just enough time for the next pitch, where Hammonds popped up to the shortstop. It was quick and masterful work by professionals who not only know the game, but also love it.

"We did OK. We can step it up a notch and that's our goal," said Langley, whose crew moves to Chicago tomorrow for the Cubs-San Diego game. "We'll be better this week."

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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