When the cry of "Play ball!" officially goes through the land this week, it will open a season that will see the biggest changes in who's covering baseball since NBC's inaugural telecast in 1939.
NBC, whose pioneering radio and television coverage for seven decades won it the distinction as "The Baseball Network," found itself without the sport when it was outbid for the exclusive network rights in December, 1988. ABC, which also carried regular season games and alternated with NBC on All-Star and post-season telecasts since 1976, also was called out.
In their place, CBS, which has not broadcast a game since 1964--and with a bid of just over $1 billion--became the exclusive network home of Major League Baseball. CBS' coverage begins Saturday with a 10 a.m. game between the Dodgers and Houston Astros (on Channels 2 and 8).
Meanwhile, baseball also has agreed to its most extensive cable network coverage, with ESPN winning the rights and scheduling 161 games this season.
Ted Shaker, CBS Sports' executive producer, asks viewers to be patient with his network's coverage.
"We're not going in beating our chests saying we'll do baseball better than it's ever been done before," he said. "We go in with a deep bow to NBC and ABC and with a great reverence for the game. It'll take time and we'll make mistakes. Hopefully, we won't make them a couple of times. We'll make our own imprint on televising baseball, but not right out of the blocks."
Shaker said his network plans no departures from the traditional approach to televising the sport.
"We're not out to re-invent the wheel," Shaker said. "NBC for the last four decades and ABC since 1976 set the standards for network coverage of baseball on television. They set a high standard, and we'll have to work really hard to reach that."
The change most noticeable to viewers will come in the announcing booth. Instead of the play-by-play announcer holding the central role, the analyst will.
Holding those roles will be longtime major league catcher and former ABC analyst Tim McCarver and Jim Kaat, who pitched a record 25 seasons in the major leagues.
"Tim has a tremendous way of expressing himself, with great humor and spontaneity. He'll be able to express himself much more freely than he did at ABC, (which covered baseball with a three-man team) because there will be one less person in the booth."
But McCarver won't be heard in Southern California until June. For the next two Saturdays, the duo of Kaat and St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck will call the games beamed into the Southland.
"I try to take the same approach to announcing that I did to pitching--keep it simple, stupid," said Kaat, who has announced for NBC, ESPN and three major league teams.
"I try to prepare and give the avid fan insight he can chew on, but not lose the casual fan by going too deep. I want to be honest, objective and lighthearted."
Another member of CBS' announcing team is Greg Gumbel, who will host the studio wrap-around show. His brother Bryant of the "Today" show once held the same position at NBC.
One tradition CBS won't be keeping is televising a game every week. After an April 21 game between the California Angels and Minnesota Twins, baseball will disappear on CBS until June 16. Games will be televised each Saturday thereafter through Aug. 25, when there will be another hiatus until Sept. 22.
But the void will be more than made up by cable.
ESPN will carry double-headers Tuesdays and Fridays and single games Sunday and Wednesday evenings. ESPN's coverage begins Monday with an opening-day game at 11:30 a.m. between the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago White Sox, followed by a 5 p.m. Chicago Cubs-Philadelphia Phillies contest.
According to Loren Matthews, ESPN's senior vice president in charge of programming, the key to his network's broadcasts will not come from the ballparks but from its Bristol, Conn., studios.
"The bottom line is that we'll be able to go to other games, predominantly on a quick turnaround tape basis to show what's going on," Matthews said. "For extraordinary occurrences, we will have even greater latitude of bringing live the significance of Nolan Ryan's 300th win or a long hitting streak being on the line."
The all-sports cable network also will air "Baseball Tonight," a nightly scores, highlights, features and analysis show hosted by John Saunders.
"Our goal is to put the season into perspective, instead of just reporting it as a series of games," said "Baseball Tonight" coordinating producer Eric Schoenfeld.
"If you watch the weekly baseball shows, it's tough for them to pick out the three or four most pivotal moments. Because we'll be there every night, we'll have pivotal moments every night, spotting trends, anticipating upcoming trends and saying why each game is meaningful."