It's here: MLB Network is under way
Commissioner delivers address to estimated 50 million households
With a surprise greeting from Commissioner Bud Selig that called it "the ultimate television destination for baseball," the MLB Network went on the air Thursday at 6 p.m. ET amid great anticipation and shattered the record for largest launch in cable network history with an estimated reach of 50 million households.
It is a New Year, and it is a new home for Major League Baseball.
"Baseball holds a special place in the fabric of American culture," Selig said, speaking into the camera from his office as the official introduction. "For more than a century, during both good times and periods of turmoil, fans have enjoyed our nation's pastime. Baseball has created a common bond among the generations and enduring memories for all of us throughout its long and distinguished history.
"I am proud to introduce you to MLB Network, which will give fans a new way to enjoy baseball. MLB Network will provide you with in-depth coverage, live games, unique programming and unprecedented access to Major League Baseball. With more than 150,000 hours of archival footage from MLB Productions, MLB Network will show you the greatest moments in baseball history. I would like to thank you our fans for your continued support and for tuning in to be part of this historic day for Major League Baseball."
In the 24 hours leading up to the launch, one could feel the electricity inside the overhauled former MSNBC studios in Secaucus, N.J. This is a $50 million investment, and this launch is the culmination of a hiring frenzy and nearly two years of preparation dating back to MLB's first consultation meeting with the firm that had done consulting and development work for the NFL Network.
"All credit goes to the team that pulled this together in such a short period of time," said Tony Petitti, president and CEO of the new network and previously executive vice president at CBS Sports. "It was a tremendous group effort. While we're very pleased with the first day's results, we're focused on delivering quality programming on a daily basis."
That programming also created some history in itself. After the welcome from the Commissioner and then the one-hour "Hot Stove" regular show, baseball fans were treated to a 7 p.m. rebroadcast of Don Larsen's perfect game thrown during the 1956 World Series. The last time fans saw it was when it happened live, when the concept of cable network would have been hard enough to imagine -- much less the concept of a 24/7/365 TV network only about baseball. That game was scheduled to then be replayed throughout the night.
"It's a never-before-seen kinescope of the original game," said Bob Costas, who appeared in the new studios for a chat that was pre-taped, along with the battery of that gem. "But we won't just be airing the game, we'll also be joined here in the studio by Don Larsen and Yogi Berra as they relive that perfect day at Yankee Stadium."
Then, suddenly, they were there. The MLB Network was alive, and captivating. Berra and Larsen, side-by-side, with one of the best broadcasters in the business, sitting in the middle of spectacular Studio 42, with a live audience beside them.
"It was a thrill to be in the World Series," Larsen told Costas. "We probably got too much attention, but I didn't mind that one bit."
Indeed, this is the kind of attention on tradition that people want, mixed with everything modern and futuristic.
The MLB Network launched without a hitch. One of the coolest things in the first hour, during the "Hot Stove" show, was the analysis of Jackie Robinson's famous slide under Berra's tag while stealing home. They summoned archival footage and broke it down, with Barry Larkin, Harold Reynolds, Al Leiter and special guest Jimmy Rollins from the Phillies all standing around home plate on the Studio 42 half-scale field to show a new perspective.
It seemed pretty clear that Robinson surprised the Yankees with that steal, and that he just beat Berra's tag. Berra subsequently was steaming and in the umpire's face, but a half-century later, it is one of those things that can be scrutinized in a new way -- thanks to the MLB Network.
This is not just another sports network. For one thing, this one is free according to MLB Network officials; that is its understanding with multiple systems operators who carry it. Fans found it throughout Thursday and posted blogs and messages about it in the hours leading up to launch, and any inability to access it even further demonstrated the excitement surrounding it. Go to mlbnetwork.com and use the Channel Locator, inserting your ZIP code to see where it is on the remote, or if you have it. You will find a full listing of cable, satellite and telecom providers that carry the MLB Network in your area, along with channel listing details in standard and high definition where applicable. In addition, if there are video providers in that zip code who do not carry the MLB Network, the channel locator provides a link to send a message to that provider requesting that they add what every fan needs in 2009.
Also, this is an important new component in the multifaceted way of life as a modern baseball fan. You go to the ballpark, you watch live MLB.TV and/or your regional team broadcasters, you follow games live with MLB At Bat on your iPhone, you get Video Alerts sent to your BlackBerry, you manage fantasy rosters and schedule ballpark road trips and live like no baseball fan knew how to live before.
Happy New Year. The whole experience now gets even more fun.
Now that you know it is free and you know where to find it -- or how to get it if you don't have it -- the other key question that is constantly asked by fans pre-launch is whether the MLB Network will equally represent the fan bases of 30 Major League clubs. The answer from network personnel is a resounding yes, as best represented by the backlit logos of all 30 MLB clubs ringing the ceiling of the elaborate Studio 3.
The more the first evening went on, the more obvious that became. They are talking about a little of everything. It also should be noted that on the 35th anniversary of the day that Roberto Clemente was tragically lost in a plane crash while on a rescue mission to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, the MLB Network aired a special tribute to the player so treasured that the Roberto Clemente Award is MLB's highest honor for community service.
One immediate example of the equal representation for all clubs will be the ambitious project called "30 Clubs in 30 Days," in which the MLB Network will travel to every Spring Training site and produce a one-hour special on each team. So at some point in February or March you will see an entire show devoted to your club, and that should set the tone for how the "MLB Tonight" signature show will cover all 30 teams every night during the 2009 season.
Brian Carter, a 45-year-old Angels fan in Irvine, Calif., e-mailed MLB.com with that very question of balance that has been on so many minds. "Finally, a network for the rest of us," he then replied when told of the programming plan. Unquestionably, the MLB Network will be under great scrutiny at the outset for this very issue. Just consider the words of new MLB Network analyst Reynolds, who spent many years as an analyst for ESPN's "Baseball Tonight."
"I'd be watching anyway," said Reynolds. "Maybe not all eight hours. The rotation of being able to cover it for eight hours will allow us to balance it out for all teams. I'm a fan of every team being represented. I wanted to see Rupert Jones when I was a boy. When he came out and tipped his cap, that's all I needed. He was Seattle's first big star."
Reynolds was an All-Star in Seattle himself in 1987-88. Now he is being joined in the studios by a lineup of analysts that so far includes Larkin, Leiter, Joe Magrane, Dan Plesac and Mitch Williams. Hosts will include Matt Vasgersian, Greg Amsinger and Victor Rojas. Trenni Kusnierek and Hazel Mae will be on-air reporters, and Jon Heyman and Tom Verducci will be "baseball insiders." Expect further additions to the lineup as the network is launched and as it evolves.
The MLB Network will cater to all demographics, just as the game itself does. It will televise 16 live games during the World Baseball Classic in March, and 26 live games during its first regular season (averaging one a week). The network just announced that it will be re-airing Ken Burns' epic masterpiece "Baseball" during the opening months. Beginning on Tuesday, episodes (or "innings" as they are referred throughout the film series) will air every Tuesday night in January at 8 p.m., and at the same time on Tuesday and Thursday nights in February. There will be something for everyone, from classics like the Larsen game to documentaries such as "Pride and Perseverance: The Story of the Negro Leagues" on Jan. 19 to awards shows and more.
"After everything I've read so far about the MLB Network, I've become really excited," e-mailed Elizabeth Dreeson, a 15-year-old Red Sox fan in Miami. "There will finally be an entire channel devoted specifically to baseball: all baseball, all the time. The fact that it's on air 24/7 for 365 days means that I'll always be able to watch baseball no matter what, and that's very reassuring. It's like 'Baseball Tonight' all the time with special features that really bring the magic of the game to life."
Petitti has made it clear that his new network's signature show does not need to beat "Baseball Tonight" in the ratings for the network to be declared a runaway success. It's all in the baseball family.
"Being second for us is a good thing," Petitti said. "If we're the second place people turn to for baseball, we'll be very successful."
Technology breakthroughs will further differentiate the MLB Network. It is in the process of installing "Ballpark Cams" in every MLB venue, so that there always will be a couple of cameras in each park that the network can control from its studios. If it wants to show something of import in batting practice, voila. If it wants to have live player interviews right after final outs, a club official just has to bring over a requested player to within eyesight of the camera.
Both the Commissioner's office and MLB Productions, in conjunction with MLB Network, developed new software that will allow for digital logging of games in a completely tapeless environment. This system routes data throughout the entire facility -- allowing producers and editors to have simultaneous access to all files immediately. If Leiter is on-air describing Manny Ramirez as a great 0-2 hitter, within seconds the network can locate and air Ramirez at-bats in which he faced an 0-2 count.
"Knowing the technology they put behind this, knowing the talent, I'm really looking forward to this," Leiter said.
There are going to be so many reasons for baseball fans to watch, and here is just another of the many:
On Monday, the MLB Network will debut its original program "PRIME 9." This half-hour show breaks down the top nine all-time in a variety of areas in baseball history, such as players at different positions, great comebacks and unbreakable records. The first of these shows will focus that night at 8 p.m. on center fielders, followed a half-hour later by all-time home runs. The debate will be crazy.
Best center fielders. There was Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Ken Griffey Jr., but does Duke Snider make the cut? But hey, all of those fans already asking the "equal representation" question will be in a tizzy if four of five guys with New York ties already are at the top. Expect some high heart rates among those holding the remotes at home during this regular show. What about Kirby Puckett? Word has it that a compelling case is made for Jim Edmonds, but who really knows at this point?
Petitti knows the programming will evolve, and the feedback from millions of viewers will be heard loud and clear. It will be shaped by what baseball fans truly want and need.
"We will be complementary to the way fans watch their local team," he said. "If you watch [a club] on your regional network, for example, we provide the national perspective. Every game has ebbs and flows. We're always going to be there."
They were there for the first time at 6 p.m. today, and life as we knew it now changes for lots of baseball fans. Keep banging the pots and pans, keep shooting the fireworks and blowing the horns. A new year is being welcomed with your new network, and it is finally here at last.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.