Broadcasting late-night baseball a challenge
After two days of living off energy drinks and virtually no sleep to broadcast Mariners games being played essentially in the middle of the night, TV producer Curtis Wilson was understandably a bit foggy.
''What day is it?'' Wilson asked aloud in a studio control room. ''It's Thursday, right?''
The senior producer of all Seattle Mariners television broadcasts doesn't typically ask mundane questions of no one in particular.
But nothing was typical about the challenges Wilson and his staff at ROOT Sports - the Mariners television affiliate - undertook in the wee hours of Wednesday and Thursday to provide the only live domestic broadcast of the Mariners and Oakland Athletics' season-opening series from Japan.
Making the broadcast work was a delicate task involving communicating across language barriers while hoping video being transmitted from 5,000 miles away by Japanese rights-holder NTV would come through without problems for die-hards watching the Mariners in the middle of the night. Seattle won the opener 3-1 in 11 innings early Wednesday before the A's came back with a 4-1 victory on Thursday morning.
''We don't normally do baseball at 2 and 3 in the morning so from that standpoint it's good that it's over,'' ROOT Sports executive producer Jon Bradford said around 4:30 a.m. PDT Thursday. ''But these guys are pros. They know what they're doing.''
This was the first time in the four opening series played in Japan that all of the broadcast production was done by the local affiliate. In 2000, Fox Sports Net showed both games of the Cubs-Mets series live. In 2004, ESPN jumped in to show the season opener between the Yankees and Tampa Bay, while the second game was shown on local affiliates.
The 2008 series between Boston and Oakland seemed to set the standard as both games were live on ESPN2 with the Red Sox coming off a world title. But with neither the Mariners nor A's expected to contend in the AL West, this year's broadcast was left to the individual teams and local affiliates. The game production done by ROOT Sports on Thursday was picked up and broadcast nationally on MLB Network.
The Seattle crew quickly determined it would be too costly to send announcers and support staff to Japan to broadcast the games in person, with a total cost 2 1/2 times greater than a typical road game broadcast in in the United States, according to Randy Adamack, Mariners vice president of communications.
So they made arrangements with NTV to transmit the signal via transoceanic fiber-optic cable to the studio in a Seattle suburb about 15 miles from Safeco Field.
Mariners broadcast director Mark Engelbrekt traveled to Tokyo and worked alongside the Japanese producers, relaying information on available camera shots to Wilson through a phone line that remained open throughout the games.
Television announcers Dave Sims and Mike Blowers called the game from the in-house studio by watching the action on a pair of large flat-screen TVs on each side of the studio cameras.
Blowers, an 11-year veteran of the majors who also played professionally in Japan, and Sims missed the ability to get a full feel of the game, like being able to tell when a runner might have a slightly larger lead or the outfield is shaded in a certain direction.
''When you can't hear it, smell it, feel it, taste it, it's totally different,'' Sims said. ''Calling a game off a monitor ... you keep it simple. You call what you see. But it's just different.''
ROOT also had no control over camera angles or what replays NTV would show.
Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki was often the sole focus of NTV's broadcast. When Dustin Ackley homered in Wednesday's opener, NTV didn't show replays because Suzuki was the next batter.
To try to make the game their own, Wilson's crew added graphics whenever possible to go along with pre-packaged segments shot by reporter Jen Mueller, who traveled with the team to Japan.
''We were all very confident we were going to get the feed here,'' Wilson said. ''The wild card in it was that Japanese TV televises games the way Japanese TV wants.''
With the large timer clicking in the corner of the control room, Seattle's Justin Smoak made the final out of Thursday's loss just as the clock hit 4:28 a.m. PDT.
Two minutes later, Blowers and Sims signed off with a fist bump and each headed toward a pillow, while Wilson and some of the other production staff readied notes for the daytime crew tasked with cleaning up and repackaging the game for a prime-time broadcast Thursday.
But it will be a short break. The entire crew will be back in Arizona this weekend to broadcast the conclusion of spring play.
''I think these guys get back in their comfort zone when we go back to spring training and get back in a (production) truck and do it,'' Bradford said.
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