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A New Spin on the Ol' Ballgame : Baseball Fox-Style Will Emphasize Fun, Comedy, Satire and a New Attitude Toward the Stars

May 31, 1996|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Baseball, the game with a revered history and tradition, is in trouble. Bad press and some grouchy superstars, labor problems that wiped out a World Series and low-rated TV broadcasts have forced the once undisputed national pastime to take a back seat in recent years to football and basketball.

But it's nothing that some Madison Avenue wizardry, courtesy of Fox, the country's most irreverent network, can't fix. On Saturday, as Fox premieres its "Game of the Week" under a new five-year contract with major league baseball, the sport will blow the dust off itself just as sure as Randy Johnson can blow his high hard one past any hitter on the planet.

Or so those Fox guys think.

"There's a reason that football and basketball are more popular than baseball today, especially with kids," said Ed Goren, executive producer of Fox Sports. "Kids like superheroes, in cartoons and in their athletes. And what has failed to happen is the presentation of baseball players as super-athletes, which they are. People don't realize how hard it is to hit a 95 mph fastball for power and average like Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza and Mo Vaughn and all these guys can do today. Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes you'll ever see, sure proved it isn't so easy, and that is what we have to get across."

Basketball in particular started to thrive on television when the league realized it had to sell not the game but its stars: Magic, Bird, Michael, Shaq. Now, Goren said, baseball must follow suit.

"People like to ask us what kind of tricks and things we are going to put in the broadcasts," he said, "but that's not the critical thing. The game is the game. What is different is Fox. We don't just write a check to the league and then point cameras at the field. Our promotion and marketing campaign is unprecedented in the history of baseball. We have shot 45 spots with the top names in the game that will personalize the players, put a face to a name."

One spot has Seattle Mariner fire-baller Johnson playing delivery boy and flinging the morning newspaper through windows as women and children dive for cover. Another makes fun of the San Francisco Giants' Matt Williams, who is bald.

Fun, comedy, satire and a new respect for the stars is what Fox baseball is all about.

"Yes, that is our attitude," Goren said. "David Hill [president of Fox Sports] always points out that we are in the entertainment business. Sports is entertainment--a release from that Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 grind. If you can't have fun watching sports, then you're not doing yourself a service."

He admitted that Fox's telecasts, which will continue every Saturday through the end of the season, will contain a few innovations: microphones on the bases, on the outfield walls to give the sense of what it's like when an outfielder slams into one, perhaps mikes on the players themselves. There is also likely to be a computer image of the diamond in one corner of the screen that shows the advancement of runners while the camera is focused on, say, the ball rolling to the wall. Slow spots between pitches or batters will be filled with video highlights of the best plays from the previous night, week or season.

And, of course, "no dead guys," as Hill told a reporter recently in discussing his network's baseball plans. Any announcer who mentions a dead player--Ruth, Gehrig, fill in your favorite old-timer--would be fired, Hill declared.

That was an overstatement, Goren acknowledged.

"Sometimes we say things for emphasis, but the point is that a lot of broadcasters seem to spend a lot of time talking about the past rather than the current," he explained. "I promise that we will respect the great tradition of baseball, but we also want to celebrate its current crop of stars. We have to show the kids that this is not their father's version of baseball or their father's version of television.

"Imagine a father saying to his kid today, 'Let me tell you about basketball. Bob Cousy, now he was the man.' And the kid is going to say, 'Bob who? I want to be like Shaq.' Or when the New York Giants were winning the Super Bowl a few years back, would the broadcaster harp on how great Y.A Tittle used to be, or would he talk about the guys on the field--Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms? But in baseball, they spend an unusual amount of time talking about how great the game was in the '50s."

Bridging that generational gap will rest in part with Fox's two half-hour pregame shows. The first, "In the Zone," will be directed at kids. The second, "Baseball on Fox," will look more like the network's NFL pregame show. Hosted by Chip Caray, grandson of legendary Cubs announcer Harry Caray, and former players Dave Winfield and Steve Lyons, the program will be filled with stats, opinions, features on the players and demonstrations from a baseball field and batting cage that is being constructed adjacent to the Fox studios in Hollywood.

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