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Sunday slights: ESPN doing baseball fans no favors with ‘SNB’ broadcast

Network moves away from calling a game toward putting on a show

ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” crew of Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez and Jessica Mendoza.
ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” crew of Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez and Jessica Mendoza will call a Cubs game for the third consecutive week when the team visits the Nationals.
ESPN

This weekend, the Cubs will make their third consecutive appearance on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” when they face the Nationals. After the first two, it’s safe to say the third time won’t be the charm.

ESPN has moved away from broadcasting a game and toward putting on a show. Pre-produced segments are shown while the ball is in play. Some topics of conversation are non sequiturs, others nonsensical. And if the star of the “show” is supposed to be analyst Alex Rodriguez, he comes off as more of a flickering neon light in a gas-station window.

For all the criticism ESPN took for its three-person broadcast of “Monday Night Football,” it’s surprising that “SNB” basically has a four-person cast of Rodriguez, play-by-play voice Matt Vasgersian, analyst Jessica Mendoza and reporter Buster Olney. They interrupt each other and struggle to play off each other. Their interactions often sound forced.

In fact, much of the broadcast is forced. In the game against the Brewers, ESPN showed Rodriguez interviewing Brewers right fielder and National League MVP Christian Yelich – in spring training. It was dated and misplaced.

To its credit, ESPN didn’t miss a pitch during the 2-minute, 30-second segment, for which the network came back from commercial early. But it used the full screen, rather than a split, for much of it, removing the viewer from the game. ESPN airs an hourlong “Baseball Tonight” before the Sunday night game; that’s where feature interviews belong. Not during the action.

More confounding are the constant “updates” from games that were completed. The Sunday night game is the only game being played, yet Vasgersian keeps going back to the studio for highlights from earlier games. Those belong on the pregame show, too. You don’t see NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” showing highlights from earlier NFL games during the game.

The broadcasters sometimes add to the disjointed feeling, especially when they discuss topics that have nothing to do with the game. Coming back from a commercial, ESPN promoted the NBA Draft Lottery, which was two days after the game. No problem there. The problem came when Vasgersian led Rodriguez into a conversation about lottery prize Zion Williamson.

The connection was understandable. Rodriguez was billed as a franchise savior when he was drafted No. 1 in 1993, as Williamson figures to be in June. But Rodriguez went nowhere with the cue, and Vasgersian prolonged the conversation anyway. Vasgersian doesn’t play the role of traffic cop very well, and he isn’t an adept interviewer, diminishing the value of the in-game Q-and-A’s in the dugout.

Rodriguez doesn’t overwhelm with insight, either. He said Cubs catcher Willson Contreras is “becoming a man this year in every shape of the word” and had an “adult” at-bat when he drove in the first run of the game. Interesting word choices. He also said it was important for Lester “to get a lead and to start having a winning type of ballgame versus the other.” Fascinating.

Facts eluded him, too, when he was discussing Lester’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Rodriguez credited Lester with helping end two World Series curses. He obviously meant the Cubs for one, but if he meant the Red Sox for the other, he was mistaken. The Red Sox won the Series in 2004; Lester joined them in 2006. But that didn’t stop Vasgersian from echoing Rodriguez’s sentiment with the bad information.

Rodriguez is better on Fox’s baseball studio show with host Kevin Burkhardt, David Ortiz and Frank Thomas. Even after a full season together, he, Mendoza and Vasgersian aren’t connecting, and Rodriguez isn’t the person to carry a broadcast, despite his name recognition. He isn’t “MNF” deserter Jason Witten, but he isn’t providing the insight that befits a national game of the week.

ESPN moved the start time of “SNB” an hour earlier than in years past to accommodate players’ gripes. Considering the network’s approach to the broadcast has been widely panned, perhaps it could address these gripes.

(Public-service announcement: The Cubs’ next scheduled game on “SNB” is June 15 against the Dodgers.)

Remote patrol

  • Cubs fans figure to enjoy the call of the game Saturday against the Nationals, which will air regionally on Fox-32. Cubs play-by-play voice Len Kasper and former Cubs catcher Joe Girardi will be behind the mic. First pitch is 6:15 p.m.
  • ESPN announced that Steve Levy and analysts Brian Griese and Louis Riddick will call the second game of the Week 1 “Monday Night Football” doubleheader, between the Broncos and Raiders in Oakland. Laura Rutledge will be the reporter.