Those ESPN ‘Baseball Tonight’ guys have all the fun
BY JUSTIN ALBERS firstname.lastname@example.org June 20, 2011 11:46AM
Since they left their studio and took the show on the road, Karl Ravech (left), John Kruk and the rest of ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" team have seen their TV ratings rise.
Updated: June 20, 2011 11:50AM
Bobby Valentine walked onto ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” set outside Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoon with a bright smile on his face. He interacted with fans hoping to get on TV, joked with his co-hosts on stage.
At the end of the first segment, he turned around and yelled: “I love this crowd. Best we’ve had so far.”
Valentine showed the same gregarious personality fans have grown to love. But the truth is, the former MLB manager got his energy from the enthusiastic crowd. He always does. With his jam-packed schedule, it’s hard to get up for every show.
Valentine got home around midnight Saturday night after making an appearance at a charity event in Stamford, Conn. He set his alarm for 3:15 a.m. to get to the airport in time for his flight out of New York, and he arrived at Wrigley Field in time for an 8 a.m. production meeting.
Sound exhausting? That’s just a typical weekend for Valentine and the “Baseball Tonight” crew now that ESPN is taking the show on the road for most of its “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcasts.
“It’s a lot more work for me,” Valentine said. “It’s different. For me, I don’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done. It’s really challenging.”
The “Baseball Tonight” team goes on air at 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Sundays, but most of its work gets done off air.
After the early production meeting and the first show of the day, a group including Karl Ravech, John Kruk, Barry Larkin and Buster Olney hangs out in a portable greenroom positioned next to the Wrigleyville Block Party.
Six flat-screen TVs are connected to DirecTV and positioned around the room. The guys watch the afternoon baseball games, occasionally making comments about what they see.
“Ellsbury got a double,” Ravech says, eyeing the Red Sox-Brewers game. “No wait, that’s Reddick.”
“J.J.?,” Kruk jokes about the former Duke basketball star. “Good shooter, not much of a defender.”
The afternoon continues. Every once in a while, Kruk and Larkin reminisce about their playing days.
Kruk asks Larkin when he hit his first career home run. Larkin, a former Red, remembers it was in Cincinnati, but he looks up the box score from the game to make sure.
Kruk thinks about it for a minute, then he remembers: He played in that game.
“Did you hit it to left field?,” Kruk asks. “You probably hit it over my head.”
“You didn’t try to climb the wall for it, did you?,” Larkin responds.
“I would imagine not,” Kruk says.
After Ravech and Kruk turn around to check out the U.S. Open coverage on the TV behind them, Olney comes up with a trivia question.
“Who had the highest payroll in ’91?,” he asks.
“The Reds. They had to pay Larkin,” Kruk jokes.
Larkin ponders it a bit longer and answers correctly: “The A’s,” he says.
As the 3 o’clock hour approaches, Kruk prepares to do a radio hit with ESPN 1000. He asks his colleagues what he needs to know about the Cubs before going on.
“That nobody is calling them about any of their players because of the contracts,” Olney says.
When Kruk and Larkin finish their radio bits, it’s finally time to prepare for “Baseball Tonight.” The guys get their makeup done, then walk across the street to the set in the McDonalds parking lot.
Kruk and Ravech talk and joke as they walk, but Larkin – the newest member of the team – is all business. He walks far ahead of the other two, earpiece in, ready to go.
The “Let’s go Yankees!” chants drown out the assembled Cubs fans as the show begins. Screams of “Kruky” continue to come from the crowd. During a break, one fan begs Larkin to sign with the Cubs.
“We need you,” he says.
Larkin just shakes his head. He looks fit enough to put on a uniform and play tomorrow, but he’s a Red through and through.
During another commercial, a fan tosses a baseball to Ravech to sign. That starts a potentially dangerous trend as balls start flying in from anywhere and everywhere. Good thing Kruk and Larkin can still catch.
‘IT’S A GEM’
Following the first couple segments of the show, Valentine leaves the set. A handler leads him into Wrigley for the long walk up to the “Sunday Night Baseball” booth where Valentine will call the game.
“I don’t know what’s so bad about this stadium,” he says. “I think it’s great.”
Larkin goes a step further.
“I don’t think it’s a dump. I think it’s a gem,” he says.
In the booth, Valentine, Orel Hershiser and Dan Shulman give their notes one last look before going on the air. Shulman’s son is sitting in a chair keeping stats behind him so he can be with his dad on Father’s Day.
In between innings. Hershiser and Valentine talk about what they’re seeing on the field.
“Sabathia needs to go away from the fastball,” Hershiser says of the Yankees starter after he surrenders an early 4-1 lead. “It’s not working. He can come back to it later and they won’t be on it.”
As the night winds down and the Cubs lose to the Yankees, a crowd gathers around the “Baseball Tonight” set once again. Ravech repeats: “Best crowd of the year.”
That’s saying something considering Ravech and the “Baseball Tonight” crew have made appearances in Boston and New York this season.
“This is how we do it in Chicago,” a fan yells.
Special experience for the North Side, just another Sunday for “Baseball Tonight.”