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CBS, ESPN made rookie mistakes during baseball season

By
JEFF HASEN UPI Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Tim McCarver calls it vanilla, and there's nothing wrong with that unless you've tasted rocky road.

Until it lost the baseball contract, NBC delivered the fancy flavor. Like it or not, CBS, which paid $1.06 billion for four years of exclusive coverage, has been lined up against this measuring stick all season.

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'From the first broadcast, we haven't tried to go out and reinvent the wheel,' said McCarver, the top CBS baseball commentator. 'We've gone out to do things from a stable standpoint. There are only so many things you can do from a production standpoint.

'We've been good vanilla this year. Maybe french vanilla.'

Aside from the lack of knowledge that NBC had accumulated over decades, CBS had no baseball identity when the season began.

But problems were self-made -- programmmers chose a 16-game sporadic Saturday schedule instead of the traditional Game of the Week fare; Brent Musburger, the most-watched personality on sports television, was fired just weeks before he was to work with McCarver on the No. 1 team.

Up to the varsity stepped Jack Buck, a nearly non-descript television entity who has made a career on radio broadcasts.

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Buck is as dependable as a Maytag washer repairman, but he has negligible charisma. McCarver is the best analyst going and he made the best of the pairing with an annoucer he has known since his playing days in St. Louis. But there was no flair, no reason to get on the telephone to tell a friend what was said.

CBS is a rookie, and like any first-year player, the network had to learn as it went along.

The CBS stamp became the tight shot-- the stares of Oakland's Dave Stewart in the playoffs and World Series must've frightened young children. On occasion, however, the production truck seemed transfixed on the pictures and forgot to follow the action.

The 1990 losses could reach $75 million, but CBS executives jumped as high as Lou Piniella when Cincinnati won the first two games of the World Series. A long Series means more dollars.

The irony in ESPN's first baseball effort is there was over-coverage on every night but the last, when a director's decision to employ seven cameras for reaction shots cost viewers an opportunity to adequetely see and appreciate Tom Brunansky's division-clinching catch in the right- field corner at Boston's Fenway Park.

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ESPN's task of televising 305 games principally on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays was monumental and impossible to pull off without hitches.

Much like CBS's early efforts, many of ESPN's spring telecasts were off a beat with the ball often traveling out of the picture. But to the cable network's credit, except for the Fenway blunder, the coverage was sharper as the season wore on.

The on-air talent, though, was as hit-and-miss as a pitcher working on nine days of rest.

Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, the top team working Sunday night games, traveled to every stadium, offending few and wowing the same number.

Chris Berman was rewarded for his loyalty to ESPN by being given a play-by-play slot, yet he was more storyteller than anything and his 'SportsCenter' work describing the night's noteworthy plays was missed.

The most impressive of all was John Saunders, who became a star as a four-night-a-week host of 'Baseball Tonight.' Saunders adeptly handled the majority of the more than 4,000 cut-ins during games and his effort was not brought down by the unacceptable Bill Robinson and barely acceptable Ray Knight as in-studio analysts.

But only in September and October was the blanket coverage necessary. Only those bordering on fanatical sought to digest every statistic ever conceived during the long summer. Is there a reason to know how batters born on Thursdays hit on artificial turf during day games?

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Still, the coverage has its place next season and into the future because of the viewer's right to sit with remote control and watch as much or as little as desired.

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