As the curtain rises on the 1999 baseball season, Tim Walbert, Home Team Sports' relatively new director of production, has an interesting predicament ahead: Make what already may be the best local coverage of a team even better.
Consider Walbert up for the challenge, as HTS -- which not only produces the entire Orioles telecast schedule, home and away, broadcast and cable -- has or soon will be adding a number of new pieces of equipment, camera positions, graphics and music to bolster the attack.
"We've made the commitment to make this [production] better and better and I think we're doing that," said Walbert.
The moves have not only pushed HTS ahead of most regional cable sports channels, but on a par with ESPN and Fox's weekly productions.
You'll notice some of the changes right at the top of each telecast, as HTS has gone with a new opening sequence. You may also have noticed the periodic running of scores, not only from around baseball, but from other sports as well, at the bottom of the screen.
Some of the changes are a bit more subtle, however, but no less significant.
For instance, the channel has purchased its own "Elvis" machine, which allows for those nifty pitch sequence packages that are all the rage these days. The machine, which Fox and NBC use during the postseason, also permits simultaneous recording and playback, and can store images for immediate call-up. That will be useful if a batter or pitcher is in a situation that resembles one from earlier in the season.
In the next few weeks, Walbert and crew will add two more cameras to the already network-level complement of 10 they use for Orioles' home games. The two new cameras will be "point-of-view" with one going in a low position near home plate and the other in the booth, where analysts Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer can demonstrate what they're talking about.
"When [Mike] Mussina is throwing the knuckle-curve, we can go up to the booth to let Palmer and Flanny explain the grip and break and things like that," said Walbert. "I was a catcher and I never understood the nuances of pitching, but with guys like that up there, they can explain it perfectly."
The production team also has brought on an electronic news-gathering unit, which will permit for the recording of post-game interviews that can be aired the next day, or, in the more immediate sense, allow HTS to follow an injured player to a local hospital and provide live-to-tape reports.
The final major change is the installation of a new center-field camera that captures the batter in much greater detail than the previous model. Walbert said that while the old center-field shot could get a batter's close-up from the waist up, the new model can get the hitter from the neck up.
The result is those extremely tight shots that you've been seeing of batters' faces that provide for drama, a rather important component of a television production.
"Baseball has these moments of drama and as the moment starts to rise, you need to be on top of them. If not, you're not doing justice to the audience. If you don't cover the drama, the audience will look for something else," said Walbert.
Welcome back, Dan
Before he became a lightning rod for criticism on ABC's "Monday Night Football," Dan Dierdorf was an analyst at CBS, and yesterday he returned to his roots, as CBS' No. 2 color man, to be paired with Verne Lundquist.
But Dierdorf almost didn't make the switch. The former St. Louis Cardinals offensive lineman said he was content to take the season off, particularly in view of how his 13-year term of service with ABC came to an end.
"I just didn't think anything would flip my switch. That was a less than happy time for me and I didn't think anything would make me feel good about going back to television. But CBS really went out of their way to convince me that it was a good move for me," said Dierdorf.
Indeed, Dierdorf, while not attacking ABC management directly for booting him out of the booth, said the network was less than forthcoming about whether he would return for the 1999 season.
Dierdorf himself announced after the Super Bowl that he was leaving ABC, though he said he could see that he wasn't going to be asked back.
"I knew it was over, and I just wanted someone to say it. No one would say it, so I did. I knew I would get a job sooner or later," said Dierdorf.
CBS' interest in Dierdorf is frankly surprising since Sean McManus, the president of the network's sports division, declared just after Dierdorf and ABC parted company that he was not interested. But McManus said CBS, which shifted former No. 2 analyst Randy Cross to the "NFL Today," only wanted to make that move with someone of a suitable caliber.
Dierdorf's new post is a decided come down from his ABC gig, and he knows it. But Dierdorf's position is that with just Lundquist to work with, there will more air time for him, not to mention the fact that he'll get out of the intense glare of Monday night.
"In many ways, this is a breath of fresh air," said Dierdorf. "I don't have to worry about the politics and all the unwarranted scrutiny. The Monday night ride was a great one, but I have a feeling I'm going to get back to basics and have a lot more fun than even I anticipated."
The ratings for the top 10 most-watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore during the past week (R-Rating; S-Share):
Event, Day, Ch., R/S,
O's-Yanks, Tue., 13, 14.9/22
Masters, Sun., 13, 9.5/17
Skating, Sat., 13, 8.8/15
O's-Blue Jays, Sat., 54, 6.2/18
O's-Blue Jays, Sun., 54, 6.0/12
"Sports Extra", Sun., 2, 4.7/10
Masters, Sat., 13, 4.6/12
"Sp. Unlimited", Sun., 45, 4.6/8
Sonics-Lakers, Sun., 11, 4.5/7
"NBA Showtime", Sun., 11, 3.9/8
Pub Date: 4/15/99