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Baseball bends for Fox

In the wake of last year's troubled All-Star Game, the network and the sport combined this year to make a change in search of more viewers.

July 13, 2003|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

No sport sells tradition like baseball, from Babe Ruth to the Brooklyn Dodgers, from the ivy-covered outfield wall at Chicago's creaky Wrigley Field and the fabled Green Monster at Boston's rickety Fenway Park to the wave of new ballparks designed to evoke memories of simpler days, when there was no other national sport.

There was the National League. There was the American League. Never did the twain meet, except for the All-Star Game and the World Series.

On Tuesday, the All-Star Game returns to Chicago, the city of its birth, with TV's Fox network hyping the 74th edition of the game with the tag line, "This Time It Counts." For the first time, there is a prize beyond pride. The league that wins the All-Star Game gets home-field advantage in the World Series.

In the face of low ratings, tradition crumbled, and not for the first time in recent years.

The All-Star Game, normally a prime-time summer showcase, delivered its worst showing ever last year, attracting fewer than 15 million viewers. Two decades ago, when the other broadcast networks countered with endless reruns and before cable TV offered hundreds of alternatives, the game drew more than 27 million viewers.

For the dwindling audience that tuned in last year, the memorable image was not a majestic home run or an acrobatic catch. Instead, the TV screen was filled with the picture of Bud Selig, the commissioner, shrugging helplessly as both managers informed him they had run out of players.

The managers weren't playing to win, just to get every player in. The game ended in a tie and a hail of boos. In the intervening year, Major League Baseball instituted the new stakes for the All-Star Game, which the commissioner insists was done solely to benefit Fox.

Sure enough, when Selig dusted off the concept of linking the All-Star Game to the World Series, one he said had been kicked around in his office for the past 10 years, Fox couldn't say yes fast enough. And because Fox pays baseball $2.5 billion for broadcast rights, Selig couldn't implement the concept fast enough.

"This has nothing to do with the tie," Selig said. "This has everything to do with us getting a 9 rating last year."

So now Fox is selling -- and Selig is too -- the change as a restoration of tradition, not a revolution. With incentive to win, they say, the game will matter again.

"I think it's a nudge in the right direction," said Fox broadcaster Tim McCarver, a two-time National League All-Star catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. "I don't think it was instituted to make a major change to the All-Star Game or to the postseason."

Yet there is nothing subtle about the 3,300 "This Time It Counts" banners produced for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the 1 million "This Time It Counts" coasters distributed by Budweiser, or the relentless "This Time It Counts" ad campaign on Fox. All this for a nudge?

"It does seem like more than a nudge," McCarver later admitted. "That's television."

Fox plans to eliminate the sideshows of All-Star Games past. Since the managers are supposed to play to win, Fox promises not to repeat last year's stunt of interrupting them for interviews during the game. The network will ask coaches and players to wear microphones and catchers to wear a miniature camera atop their masks, and microphones will be attached to bases and outfield walls to capture the sound of collisions. McCarver and Joe Buck will handle the game broadcast, supported by Kevin Kennedy, Steve Lyons and Jeanne Zelasko.

Among the major sports, baseball's all-star game is the only one that makes the pretense of significance. Football's Pro Bowl, which comes after the Super Bowl, is a celebration of the season, a tad more intense than touch football, a paid Hawaiian vacation for players and a last fix for fans before the NFL hibernates. The basketball and hockey games are more art festivals than athletic competitions, all the oohs and aahs of slam dunks and pretty shots with none of the defense.

That's not the case with baseball, where Selig hopes to recapture the All-Star magic of decades past. In 1970, in perhaps the most memorable play in All-Star Game history, baserunner Pete Rose slammed into Ray Fosse at the plate, overturning the catcher in a collision that ruined Fosse's shoulder and his career. And Selig said he still recalls attending the 1950 game at Chicago's Comiskey Park, in which Hall of Famer Ted Williams caught a fly ball, crashed into a wall and broke his elbow.

"I think everybody understands what home-field advantage means for either league," he said. "I do think you'll see an intensity that has been lacking."

Considering that the network pays billions in rights fees and fans pay $125 and up per ticket, Selig said players should embrace the chance to compete for something more than bragging rights.

"They care. They should care," he said. "You don't think it's an exhibition game if you paid a lot of money."

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