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If it's baseball, Peter knows

Kevin Schiff and Brad Van Bibber were lured to Florida for spring break because of the beaches and the theme parks and the weather. On this day, however, the lure for these University of Southern Indiana students is a plain-speaking 52-year-old Massachusetts native.

Sitting in the ESPN Sports Club at Disney's Boardwalk, Schiff and Van Bibber are waiting towatch Peter Gammons broadcasta SportsCenter

segment from the sports bar. Gammons does not invoke boisterous banter like Dick Vitale or down-home humor like Terry Bradshaw, but he manages to win attention from guys you would expect to find on a hotel balcony high above the beach.

"He's the best baseball analyst," Schiff says. "He doesn't need one-liners because of what he knows. He knows everything. He's spectacular."

Gammons and ESPN's Baseball Tonight

have become must-see-TV for fans, players and major-league executives. ESPN broadcast five shows at the ESPN Sports Club last week, playing in front of packed houses every night. Last Tuesday, the audience included Nike CEO Phil Knight.

Because the show airs highlights from every regular-season and post-season game, it's a favorite for baseball junkies who want to feel as if they've seen all 14 games in 30 minutes.

The highlights are just one reason the show has become so popular with the baseball family. A behind-the-scenes look at the show reveals it is news-driven, and the lead driver on baseball information is Gammons, who has written for the Boston Globe

and Sports Illustrated.

After he films his SportsCenter

segment, Schiff and Van Bibber give Gammons a shout.

"Great job, Peter."

Gammons waves and retires to his hotel room behind the sports bar. Actually, retire is the wrong word. Gammons gets on the telephone and begins to gather information. With a wealth of contacts in the game _ general managers, managers, personnel directors, agents and players _ he is always collecting notes and quotes and statistics. These conversations have created his legendary status as a baseball encyclopedia and the game's ultimate insider.

On this day, the goal is to find out status of San Francisco's J.T. Snow, who was hit in the eye by a fastball from Seattle's Randy Johnson. Someone else might settle for wire reports on Snow's status, but not Gammons.

"I made about 10 or 15 calls," Gammons says as he prepares for the show. "It's sports news. I try to be up to date. I try to get the background. Tonight, for instance, I tried to find Giants general manager Brian Sabean after he got back from the hospital with J.T. Snow just so we have it updated, so we're giving the right information.

"There's always a little thing when you do that. For instance, (Sabean) went down and found the radar gun reading, so we know that it's 97 mph. That kind of thing is something you can just throw in."

In the middle of this explanation, coordinating producer Jeff Schneider steps up with more breaking news. The agent for highly coveted Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu has said his client will play only for the Yankees and will sit out the year if not traded to the Yankees by March 18. It's 40 minutes before air time, 20 minutes before rehearsals _ but not too late to work the information into the show.

After nine years working for ESPN, the adjustment is not difficult for Gammons. Nor was the transition from print to broadcasting. ESPN executive editor John A. Walsh approached Gammons in 1988 about doing spring training reports and a weekly notes package on SportsCenter. Gammons admittedly was terrified, but the chance to do something different intrigued him.

"After a while I kind of got used to understanding what the role is," Gammons says. "You stand around at the ballpark, people come up and ask you questions. My job, on camera, is to be standing at the ballpark or on the subway and people ask questions.

"It's a very easy role."

Gammons' role does not look easy at all. Nor does production of the show. As technicians continue to help coordinate his segment, others are checking camera angles, lighting and sound. Fellow analyst Harold Reynolds and host Karl Ravech review their script in relative calm, but their relaxed appearance belies the intensity of the day.

Reynolds had to disrupt a late lunch to find Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams for an interview. Relaxed in shorts and a shirt, he had to rush back to get a shirt and tie. Williams was initially scheduled to come into the studio, but a change of plans forced Reynolds and a crew of five to find him at the new baseball park at Disney.

Despite the hurried nature of the interview, it goes well. Reynolds, who had no broadcasting experience, has a high degree of respect from players and puts them at ease. He credits Ravech for helping his quick development with production aspects.

Ravech, in his second year as the show's primary host, typifies the show's intense drive to be a seamless production of up-to-minute baseball news. Three times last season, Baseball Tonight

aired the highlights of a home run trot before the player crossed home plate. The producer tells Ravech while he's on the air that there's a home run and then the shot is added to the existing highlights on the air.

"It's the perfect professional challenge," Ravech says.

Ravech and Reynolds are key players, but Gammons' value cannot be understated. In baseball terms, Ravech says, there is no pitch he can throw that Gammons cannot hit. Reynolds is impressed not only with Gammons' knowledge but also with his ability to build trust.

Schneider, the producer, says Gammons is one of the most valuable members of the show.

"Peter Gammons is baseball," Schneider says. "Peter Gammons picks up the phone and he's going to get anybody from Bud Selig to Dan Duquette to Bernie Williams the way he's dealt with players in the past has made ballplayers comfortable to really open up with him.

"Hey, he's the commissioner."

It's back, back, back . . .

ESPN's Baseball Tonight remains the only daily baseball highlights show on TV:

AIR TIME: Every day at 10:30 p.m. and at midnight except on Wednesdays. On Sundays it airs at 7:20 p.m., immediately preceding Sunday night baseball.

ON-AIR TALENT: Karl Ravech, primary host; Chris Berman, Sunday host; Gary Miller, host; Peter Gammons; Harold Reynolds; Dave Campbell.


PRODUCERS: Mark Summer, Stu Barbara.

DEBUT: March 19, 1990.

NUMBER OF SHOWS: 1,391 (as of today).

SHOW STAPLES: On Deck (previews of key weekend series); Who's Hot, Who's Not; Going, Going, Gone (the day's home runs); Plays of the Week.