Nearly five hours before Sunday's Angels-Devil Rays game, the camera operators, directors and producers were meeting at Tropicana Field to discuss the plan for the first national broadcast of Tampa Bay's team.
For Rays fans, the lingering question was: How would ESPN portray their team, their arena and their community? But for those chamber of commerce folks hoping the broadcast would reveal what makes the Tampa Bay area great, one thing became apparent: This was ESPN, not the Travel Channel.
From the start, producer Phil Orlins went over the key facts that shaped the early starts of the Anaheim and Tampa Bay teams. The fact that it was the first time ESPN was bringing the Rays to 73.7-million homes was not discussed.
The talk centered on storylines involving the Angels and the Rays. At ESPN, even the camera operators are expected to know that Chuck LaMar helped build the team, Esteban Yan is on the mend and Bobby Smith has been great filling in for Wade Boggs. Each camera person was given a sheet of mug shots to help locate key people such as Vince Naimoli and Larry Rothschild.
"The higher the level of knowledge is, the better they're going to do at following the ball when it's in play," said Orlins, who controlled the content from 13 cameras and supervised more than 30 people.
The announcing team of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan had met with Orlins and director Marc Payton, who flew in from Biloxi, Miss., after directing the Roy Jones-Virgil Hill fight Saturday night. They also listed some of the vignettes they wanted to use, but Miller said the ideal approach would involve most of the anecdotes going untold.
"If the game is going good and it's dramatic and exciting, then we'll have everything we want," Miller said. "We'll have a real good game, and people will be into it. That's what we hope for in every game."
The game's the thing with ESPN, and no subject is too technical for its audience. The network even charts the bat speed of certain players, a subject most novices would have trouble grasping. Yet when the "chaos" machine used animated streaks to show how Jim Edmonds connected with a Dennis Springer pitch with a swing rated at 88, you understood why the ball rocketed over the rightfield wall.
ESPN also uses a philosophy it likes to term "relativity": avoiding the temptation to use tight shots on action plays so fans will see the hit as well as the baserunners.
"What makes baseball really challenging is that it's one of the few sports you can't focus only on the ball," Orlins said. "It tends to be a deficiency in other baseball broadcasts, but we're seeing some other networks pick it up. It's a service to the viewer."
Inside one of the network's two production trucks, Orlins, Payton and Jeff Evers made 40-50 decisions every half inning, and that's a conservative estimate. Replays are chosen or rejected in an instant, and during one at-bat you may see as many as 10 camera switches.
Although ESPN didn't have a blimp scanning the outside of the dome or picturesque shots from Pass-a-Grille, Miller mentioned how nice the weather was at St. Pete Beach. And only once did he mistakenly say Tropicana Field was in Tampa.
Naimoli's hope that Tropicana will become known as the best indoor baseball facility in the league moved closer to reality thanks to Miller and Morgan. Morgan said the dome appeared brighter than any others he had been in, and Miller said the money used to install a dirt infield was well spent.
The Cuesta Ray cigar bar and the statistical computers attached to the premium seats also got prime air time. Miller and Morgan only jokingly criticized the latter innovation.
Began Miller, "The thing I don't like about that is when they have the computer with all the stats "
"they don't need us," Morgan finished.
That kind of chemistry is invaluable in sportscasting and is one of the reasons the duo is capable of making any game interesting. Morgan last week won an Emmy as the best game analyst , a fact Miller teased Morgan about, and Miller long has been considered one of the best in the business.