Inside: MLB Tonight
The phrase “inside baseball” has become ubiquitous, used to describe highly technical or esoteric aspects of how a thing works, whether that thing is an iPad, a combustion engine or a doorknob. For us, however, the phrase is particularly apropos as we launch a new feature that will offer our readers exclusive insight into how your favorite equipment, programs, and brands are transformed from idea to product.
Our inaugural Inside Baseball feature takes us behind the scenes of MLB Network’s Emmy Award-winning flagship program, MLB Tonight, with host Greg Amsinger and analyst Dan Plesac, who fill us in on how the show is made, why they love the game and what you can learn from watching.
Don’t ask Greg Amsinger for Netflix recommendations. Have a question about one of this year’s Oscar nominees? The MLB Tonight host probably isn’t your guy. But if you’re looking for an opinion on who’s poised to make a deep National League pennant run or whether the title of MLB’s best pitcher will still belong to Clayton Kershaw at the end of this season then you’re in luck. In talking with Amsinger and his on-air partner, Dan Plesac, one thing becomes immediately clear: these guys know baseball. Moreover, they have a passion to match, and it’s obvious from the moment they begin talking about it. “My weakness is my lack of pop culture,” Amsinger admits. “If someone throws out a movie reference, I don’t know it. I don’t watch movies.” But he does watch baseball – lots of it. “It’s my favorite sport, and doing the specific show that I do…it is just the ultimate experience for me. It really is the best job in sports.”
Hosting MLB Tonight, which covers 15 games from coast to coast, offering highlights, live look-ins, in-depth analysis and performance demonstrations in Studio 42, requires a unique skill set, which Amsinger likens to that of a “traffic cop.” Luckily, Amsinger gained experience directing traffic, so to speak, while covering the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for CBS College Sports. Every March, Amsinger was knee-deep in the madness, pivoting on the fly from highlights to live look-ins at bracket busters, an agility he now relies on at MLB Tonight. “I’m addicted to the format,” he says. “It’s been the perfect fit.”
For 18-year MLB veteran Dan Plesac, the path from the pitcher’s mound to Studio 42 – home of the world’s coolest miniature baseball field – opened up “by luck,” he quips. After retiring from MLB in 2003, Plesac, a three-time all-star, took some time off to spend with his family before accepting a job as an analyst for the Cubs’ pre- and post-game shows from 2006-08. MLB Network launched the following year, and the timing was just right. Still, being a good ballplayer doesn’t necessarily translate to being a good broadcaster, and Plesac says it’s all about being comfortable with who you are while speaking “in a language where somebody at home can understand. Keep it simple, keep it fun, keep it entertaining.”
For viewers of MLB Tonight, the public-facing product looks polished and refined, a testament to the preparation and hard work put in before the cameras start rolling. For a 10 PM broadcast, Amsinger and Plesac report to the studio for a 7 PM production meeting, where they’re joined by the show’s producer, director, coordinating producer and researcher to discuss each night’s slate of games. “We prepare for each game as if it were the only game,” says Amsinger, explaining that the crew discusses any possible eventualities and emerging storylines from each game to put together analyses, anticipate breaking news and prepare performance demos. “We prepare all of these things,” Amsinger adds, “and sometimes 2% of it gets into the show because, guess what happened, Luis Severino is two outs away from a no-hitter, and that dominates the night. Everything else is on the cutting room floor.”
“You can’t script what’s going to happen on Friday night at 6:00,” says Plesac, who heads into each broadcast with a close eye on the night’s pitching matchups. He works with the staff to put together video packages of pitchers likely to be highlighted on a given night, but even on a night when two of the game’s best twirlers are going head to head there are never any guarantees. “Sometimes you have to shift gears,” he says. “Let’s say CC Sabathia is pitching really well going into the sixth inning. I’ll run back to the desk and say, ‘Hey, listen. I’ve been watching the Yankee game; Sabathia’s throwing great. Let’s put a package together.” But, hypothetically, what happens if Sabathia can’t get out of the seventh? “All of a sudden that really good tape,” Plesac explains, “where he’s gone six innings, hasn’t given up a run…you’ve got to scrap that tape. But when you’ve done this for a while, you don’t panic.”
The show, therefore, is a living entity, changing minute by minute, whether it’s the emergence of an unforeseen storyline, breaking news or history potentially being made. For example, it’s not uncommon for Amsinger to receive word through his earpiece mid-highlight that Jake Arrieta has taken a no-hitter into the ninth or that a dangerous scene may be playing out in St. Louis. In such cases, Amsinger explains, “I know I can’t be laughing when we go to this live look-in because something scary just happened, either somebody got hit in the head with a pitch or a bat flew into the stands.” At times like this, Amsinger relies on his producers and researchers to effectively communicate not only the information, but also its gravity – information he absorbs while simultaneously conversing with the night’s analysts. “It’s really the cadence of their communication to me that’s imperative,” he says, “because you have to keep in mind I’m talking to two other people on live television.” He cites chemistry with Plesac and the other analysts for keeping the show looking so polished while so much so much is going on behind the scenes. “It’s the most organized chaos you could ever experience.”
In addition to showing highlights and offering live look-ins, MLB Tonight offers what no other program can on a nightly basis: performance demonstrations by Plesac and some of the game’s most successful former players. Using real-time game action as teachable moments, Plesac and others apply their wealth of experience to break down how the pros do what they do, whether it’s Robinson Cano stabbing a grounder on the shortstop side of second and throwing a laser to first while blowing a bubble or Javier Baez laying down a tag with inhuman speed. As Plesac explains, this is especially done with youth viewership in mind. “The most enjoyment I get out of working here at MLB…[is] I love going into Studio 42 and demoing – whether it’s a bunt play or whether it’s getting off the mound and fielding a bunt and throwing it to third base – and explaining it in a way that a young boy or a young girl go, ‘Wow, I learned something.’ When you can explain that kind of stuff, that’s when you get satisfaction.”
Amsinger agrees. “Some of my favorite moments for kids watching our show, and I’ve had kids come up to me and say how cool this is, is when I’m on the air with Al Leiter and John Smoltz, and we’re in Studio 42 and we’re talking about the unique change-up grip of Kyle Hendricks. So then they’re just looking into a camera gripping baseballs. Kids at home eat that up. They can’t get enough of it. And it’s why all of them wish they could come to Studio 42 and a play a round of wiffle ball home run derby.”
It can be easy to forget that broadcasters who cover the game for living are no different than us. They grew up as fans, watching, rooting and following baseball, and each of them has his or her own relationship with the game. A native of St. Louis, Amsinger has no qualms about admitting he’s a die-hard Cardinals fan. “Why should I sweep under the rug why I fell in love with baseball? I fell in love with the game because Ozzie Smith hit a walk-off home run in the postseason in 1985 off Tom Niedenfuer, and I’ll never forget that moment, jumping up and down. Why should I be ashamed that I fell in love with the game growing up in St. Louis as a fan of the Cardinals? I’m not.” While he maintains his objectivity on the set, the subject of his fandom is brought up – but not by him. Instead, it’s a result of the on-set relationships between Amsinger, Plesac and other analysts, like Harold Reynolds or Pedro Martinez, who bring it up as a way to needle Amsinger. “Cubs fans hate me!” he tells them, imploring them to stop bringing it up. But, he says, it’s all part the chemistry that makes the show special. “It’s how we razz each other. It’s how we have fun. And it leads to some pretty cool non-scripted moments.”
After a playing career that spanned 18 years and included stops at seven teams, it’s equally as clear that Plesac’s love for the game hasn’t flagged. Asked what advice he would give to youth players who want to keep pursuing a future playing baseball, Plesac advises making it your passion. “Don’t be afraid to fall in love with the game of baseball. … Don’t let anybody convince you that you can’t follow your dreams. I’m living proof. If Dan Plesac can do it from Crown Point, Indiana, anybody can do it.”
Amsinger adds a similarly impassioned piece of parting advice. “One of my big pet peeves is hearing anybody say, ‘He plays the game the right way.’ The right way is playing the game while your tail is wagging. If you play with enthusiasm and happiness and excitement, that’s the right way.”
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