I finally had a chance to sit down last night and watch the MLB Network's "Hot Stove" show, a one-hour nightly program that will serve as sort of a practice run for the network's full-evening programming during the season which will run highlights and cut-ins of all the games going on each day.
I was pleasantly surprised by how good it looked, less than a week after its debut. Hosted by Victor Rojas, former Texas Rangers broadcaster and son of ex-player and Cub coach Cookie Rojas, who is amiable, well-spoken and keeps the show moving, it examines the top stories of the day (yesterday's was the press conference introducing Mark Teixeira to the NYC media) and also has various features. Yesterday, they had each of their ex-player analysts (Harold Reynolds, Al Leiter and Joe Magrane) play the role of the GM of a downtrodden team (Reds, Padres and Pirates) and choose ONE pitcher they would sign as a free agent.
Reynolds, the longtime ESPN veteran, is very comfortable on the air and made good use of the huge studio, which also serves as a backdrop that the ex-players can use to demonstrate various plays. I assume they'll do quite a bit of this during the season. Leiter, who has worked for both Fox and the YES Network doing color commentary, and Magrane, a longtime color commentator on Tampa Bay games, are both well-spoken. MLB has chosen well in getting men who both played the game and who know how to talk about it in an articulate fashion.
I also liked Tom Verducci's contributions as the non-player analyst. He's got useful opinions without being smarmy as ESPN's Tim Kurkjian is or know-it-all like Buster Olney.
MLB has also hired two female reporter/anchors, Hazel Mae (from NESN) and Trenni Kusneirek, a Milwaukee native who worked for FSN Wisconsin on Brewers games last year. Kusneirek's very good -- she's a former TV sports anchor from both Milwaukee and Pittsburgh and knows the game. Hazel Mae... well, let's just say she's nice as eye candy. She did two taped interviews, one with Teixeira, one with Yankees manager Joe Girardi. The questions seemed pretty ordinary and she seemed somewhat uncomfortable.
Those interviews were among the couple of quibbles I had with the production, less from a baseball standpoint than from a TV production standpoint -- this is my TV directing background speaking now. In the interviews, both Hazel Mae and the interviewee were holding microphones; that not only looked odd, but must have been strange for the person being interviewed.
Also, the network needs to ditch the fake crowd noise and fake ball-hitting-bat sound effect during highlight video. They were distracting and made it difficult to hear the voiceover narration. And, some of the shots of Rojas squeezed him onto a small sliver of the right-hand side of the screen, dwarfed by a plasma screen with a mostly meaningless graphic in it. In general, though, the graphic style is good -- readable without being overbearing, and their "crawl" is occasionally used as a "flip", where you see one story at a time, which is much more readable than a continuous crawl.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the show looked, and I'm sure they are tweaking it as they go, considering they still have about seven weeks before the first spring training games. The network also has some other off-season programming that looks interesting, including detailed looks at various seasons in baseball history, "Baseball's 9", which is a look at the "Top 9" in different categories, and other baseball history, including running all of Ken Burns' "Baseball", and some old World Series films. Last night, they ran the 1946 World Series -- fascinating to see the way those were filmed, using extreme closeups of players obviously shot before the game, intercut with game action, to make it look semi-live; remember, in those pre-TV days, this was the only way anyone who wasn't at the game got to see any baseball action.
That's something that from a 2009 perspective, where if we pay for it we can watch almost every game we want to (and maybe the MLB Network will eventually allow everyone to do so regardless of location), and see highlights and keep up with scores nearly instantaneously. I give the MLB Network high grades so far, and if they keep up the good work, there should be no need to watch "Baseball Tonight" any more -- since ESPN often pre-empts it for other sports, and the MLB Network will be constantly updating scores and highlights for six or seven hours every night.
Good work, MLB. Didn't think you had it in you.