There is a reason ESPN has been gradually losing its status as the go-to television outfit for baseball.
It is not just the attempt to turn Baseball Tonight into some sort of summer-time version of the college football pregame show. It’s not the seeming pairing of every actual baseball expert like Buster Olney with an info-challenged sidekick like Wendi Nix. It’s not the ludicrous and already jab-pencils-into-your-eyes repetitiveness of John Kruk’s segments on the “best seats” in each stadium, each of which make the asinine features Steve Lyons used to do for our pre-game show at Fox look like doctoral theses. It’s not even the cancellation of the lumbering Sunday Night game telecast in favor of a new program that I think is called Bobby Valentine’s Three-Hour Autobiographical History Of The World.
I mean, seriously, another week of this and I’m sending Sherpas out to search for the bodies of my friends Orel Hershiser and Dan Shulman. I only hope they are out there somewhere, doing the really good two-man-booth broadcast of which they’re capable, to an audience of St. Bernards and Yetis.
Those are just symptoms of the reason ESPN has turned itself into a distant No. 2 in the battle with MLB Network. The disease is: ESPN is no longer invested in baseball and no longer trusts it to carry its own weight. And this didn’t just start when MLB Network came on the scene with its necessary advantages of being the in-house outfit permitted to carry basically anything it wanted, almost any time it wanted. I can recall that in the middle of the “nuclear winter” of 1994-95, the Rangers traded Jose Canseco to the Red Sox. Canseco was no longer the incumbent MVP, but he had just been voted “Comeback Of The Year” and still had five 20+-homer seasons to go. The Canseco trade, instead of getting at least some of the attention it merited, was buried in a little tag-on feature at the end of SportsCenter called “News And Notes.”
We all know what the network, and that show, are about these days – promoting other ESPN products and reducing sports to merely another form of entertainment living somewhere in the neighborhood where Mariah Carey’s twins matter more than the Minnesota Twins. There’s nothing wrong with that neighborhood, just don’t impose it on actual sports fans.
But ESPN’s disconnect from baseball is now part of its DNA. It may in fact be the case that the last things that really tethers true baseball fans to the Worldwide Leader are its game broadcasts (especially for those deprived of access to MLB Net), and what had been an efficient and sometimes innovative baseball fantasy game. But even that latter slender thread is fraying. A few seasons back the computer program somehow “lost” more than a week’s worth of the daily roster juggling for literally tens of thousands of fantasy players, screwing up countless leagues and strategies. And now this weekend, the system by which ESPN manages the only “content” thing it is required to stay on top of – which real-life players are hurt, and which ones have been called up to the majors – collapsed.
Pablo Sandoval of the Giants broke a hamate bone and early Saturday was placed on the disabled list. As anybody who’s ever played fantasy baseball knows, an injury like that is mitigated only by the opportunity to place Sandoval on your disabled list and add another player to replace him in your line-up. In some leagues, you can do that instantaneously: as soon as a player gets hurt, you can rush to your computer, place Sandoval on your disabled list, and “pick up” his replacement. In others, the process occurs via scheduled “waivers,” which can be daily, or every few days, or weekly. But whatever the process, it’s possible to put Sandoval on your disabled list only after ESPN has put him on its disabled list, and as of Sunday evening, more than 24 hours after the Giants put The Panda on the shelf, the ESPN computer geeks had failed to do so.
For Sandoval’s thousands of “owners” – and by the company’s own stats he is “owned” in every single one of the leagues it operates – they are thus not only deprived of his services and the opportunity to replace him, but conceivably could have sat there in frozen and agonized horror while other owners in their league got to his potential replacements first. A call to ESPN’s fantasy “help” line revealed this disturbing fact: the phone operator said the game managers never updated disabled list eligibility over the weekend, so Sandoval would likely not be made DL-eligible before Monday. If it hadn’t happened by then, the operator helpfully suggested, they could write up a “ticket” and see if the problem could be corrected in the next few days.
When I was at ESPN, the then managing editor John Walsh used to forcefully remind us that all the research data on the constancy of the audience produced the same stark data: they were the most loyal in television, and planned to remain loyal for ever more – unless somebody came along and offered them a better product. Leaving a few thousand fantasy players remembering the weekend “ESPN” became a four-letter word may not seem like a back-breaking straw, but combine it with the soliloquies of Bobby V and the knowledge that the network’s key games will soon enough get trundled off to the backwaters of ESPN2 to provide space for football exhibitions – to say nothing of the existence of a truly superb 24-hour product from MLB Network – and you can almost watch the loyalty dissolving before your eyes.
You know what? MLB Network doesn’t offer its own baseball fantasy league product. I wonder what would happen to ESPN’s baseball audience if it did.
Update: two hours after I posted this, guess what happened? Somebody at ESPN’s Fantasy Games outfit…placed Kung Fu Panda Sandoval on the official computerized Disabled List.