Encore for Gardner is part of ESPN's look back

ON MEDIA

August 06, 2004|By RAY FRAGER

ESPN SEEMINGLY loves to look back at itself nearly as much as it does at the sports the network has covered over its 25 years of existence. To that end, the network is staging "Old School Week," bringing back five anchors of the past for one-shot returns to SportsCenter starting Sunday night.

They range from gone so long we barely recall (George Grande), gone so recently we didn't realize he'd left (Charley Steiner), gone to bigger sports things (Greg Gumbel), gone to bigger smart-aleck things (Craig Kilborn) and just plain gone (Gayle Gardner).

Baltimore sports fans should retain a soft spot for Gardner, a former WJZ sportscaster. In a teleconference Wednesday, Gardner recalled how Marylander and veteran broadcaster Jim Simpson recommended her to ESPN in 1983. Initially slotted for short update work, she said, Gardner proved herself to ESPN management by serving as sole host of an hourlong NFL Sunday highlights show. From there, she became one of the few female presences in national sportscasting.

Gardner was at ESPN from 1983 to 1987, then moved to NBC until 1993, left NBC for the Food Network and departed broadcasting to write a screenplay. For the past three years, a series of health problems left her unable to work, but she said she has recovered.

Gardner and some of the other anchors recalled an ESPN where anchors did their own makeup in restrooms, had to buy their own on-air wardrobe and worked SportsCenter without TelePrompTers. It was a slower-paced SportsCenter, Gardner said.

"It's a much different show," she said, "a much faster show. ... Now, it's like this monster - but it's a good monster."

Speaking of monsters, one prominent former anchor purposely wasn't invited back. ESPN executive Mark Shapiro said Keith Olbermann remains persona non grata for his criticism of the network, particularly as a source for much of the negative material in Mike Freeman's 2000 book ESPN: The Uncensored History.

Voting for football

Speeches? We don't need no stinkin' speeches. We got football.

The NFL returns Monday with the preseason opener, the Washington Redskins vs. the Denver Broncos in the Hall of Fame Game from Canton, Ohio (8 p.m., WMAR/Channel 2, WJLA/Channel 7). Make of this what you will, but, given the normal length of an NFL exhibition game, on that evening ABC will devote more time to 300-pound men slamming into each other than it did for the network's entire prime-time coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

ABC carried three hours of the convention. With the generally sloppy nature of exhibition play - expect to see more flags on the field than the Democrats waved at FleetCenter - the game is certain to carry beyond that time.

Then again, though John Kerry is running to be the nation's signal-caller, Patrick Ramsey and Mark Brunell are competing to become the nation's capital's quarterback. Those guys also get to model snazzy NFL Properties ball caps on the sideline.

And if there is anyone who knows a thing or two about the importance of ball caps on television, it's Joe Gibbs. He's just back as Redskins coach after running a NASCAR team, so excuse him if he starts looking for a series of sponsors' caps to keep putting on his quarterbacks' heads.

ABC's regular Monday Night Football crew will be on hand - stellar play-by-play man Al Michaels, analyst/institution John Madden (hey, the man is a brand name) and new sideline reporter Michele Tafoya. Tafoya, who has proved herself capable in any number of network assignments, replaces the unfortunately miscast Lisa Guerrero.

At halftime, ABC will present an NFL Films-produced segment in which new Hall of Famers John Elway and Barry Sanders provide commentary while watching some of their career highlights.

Ravens in ESPN opener

The Ravens begin their preseason Thursday against the Atlanta Falcons in ESPN's exhibition opener (8 p.m., also telecast on WJZ/Channel 13). Falcons fans may still be feeling the pain of last year's exhibition, when a tackle by the Ravens' Adalius Thomas put Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick out for 11 regular-season games.

Starting Thursday, a familiar voice replaces ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Patrick for the network's four preseason games. Pat Summerall sits in while Patrick recovers from heart bypass surgery. ESPN expects Patrick back for the regular season and hasn't committed to using Summerall beyond the fill-in role.

Summerall, treasured by football fans for his role as the restrained counterpoint to Madden's histrionic analysis during their years on CBS and Fox, joins Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire in the booth. Summerall, 73, underwent a liver transplant in April. While we celebrate the return of this master minimalist, let's issue this caveat: That means more time for Theismann to talk. ...

WJZ has announced a deal to simulcast the Ravens' appearances on ESPN's Sunday night games Oct. 10 (Washington) and Dec. 19 (Indianapolis Colts). As part of the deal, WMAR will carry ESPN's telecast of the Nov. 7 Sunday night game against the Cleveland Browns.

Wire services and other newspapers contributed information to this article.

Ray Frager's sports media column will appear Fridays in The Sun. Contact him via e-mail at ray.frager @baltsun.com.

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