Inside ESPN’s and Major League Baseball’s Night To Remember

When ESPN headed into Wednesday night’s slate of four final regular-season MLB games, production teams knew that something special could take place, given all the playoff possibilities. Planning had begun two weeks earlier, and, for the first time in five years, the network delivered a secondary game into blacked-out markets. But what actually took place (statistically, as likely as getting struck by lightning twice) moved the night from something that could be special to one that will never be forgotten.

“I’ve worked at ESPN for 24 years, and it was probably the greatest night I ever spent here,” says VP of Event Production Mike McQuade. “I can’t think of one night that was greater than that, and it reminds me of how great a place this is because it affords us the ability to do what we did.”

What ESPN did was cover two games on ESPN and two additional games on ESPN2. Internally, there was an A and a B network for both ESPN and ESPN2, with each network handling one of the four games.

“We feel we owned the night because they were our games, our production, and our graphics,” says McQuade. “We didn’t have to rely on any home teams or regional sports networks to produce the content. We were in control of the evening from the time Sports Center when on the air until 2:15 a.m. when we wrapped up Baseball Tonight.”

The Situation
The drama that played out involved four teams: the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Rays in the American League and the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves in the National League. In each league, the two teams had the same record and were tied for one available playoff spot. They were not playing each other (a one-game playoff was in the cards if both won or lost), and a playoff spot (and potentially epic collapses by the Red Sox and Braves) was at stake as the teams took the field.

“Our big goal all along was to make sure we were servicing fans in each market, no matter how small or large the market,” says McQuade. “Two weeks ago, we pushed heavily to make sure, if it came down to four teams vying for two spots, we could do something that would catch everyone’s attention. So, once we devised a plan, it set us up for a successful evening because we had the freedom to jump all over the place and not worry about other broadcasters.”

The biggest change from typical ESPN MLB coverage was a score bug in the upper-right corner that rotated through each of the four regional games.

“We talked through how to best service, say, a Cardinal fan to make sure they had updates of the Phillies-Braves game, and vice versa,” adds McQuade. “It was a long week of preparation.”

In terms of staffing, ESPN produces three MLB games a week, so those three crews were ready to go; a fourth crew was assembled.

In terms of technical facilities, ESPN used NCP 10 in Baltimore (the normal Sunday Night Baseball production truck), NCP 7 in Atlanta (the normal Monday Night Baseball production truck), NEP SS24 in Houston, and Lyon 11 in Tampa Bay. All four games were delivered to ESPN in Bristol, CT, via HTN fiber circuits, with the HTN team monitoring transmission from its facility in New York.

“The biggest challenge that we had was  timing,” says Chris Calcinari, VP of Event Operations for ESPN.  “We began to formulate a plan to add two additional games on Friday, made final decisions on Sunday, and even tweaked the plans throughout the day on Monday. The Event Operations team is used to dealing with last minute game selections and quickly began to work with venues, secured and mobilized crew, equipment and trucks in support of this effort.  It was a great team effort across ESPN to pull this off.”

Having teams that worked together and a team at ESPN headquarters in Bristol that was used to juggling multiple games turned out to be key to ESPN’s success.

“We know how much time there is between batters or a commercial break to be able to squeeze something in [from another game] and not miss a pitch,” says McQuade. “So we are aware of that timing, and then it is about recognizing a moment that may be happening in another game and balancing the two.”

Of course, what transpired on Wednesday made the balancing act the equivalent of walking a high wire without a net.

No drama?
Early in the evening, it appeared that things might not be as dramatic as hoped. The Cardinals scored a quick five runs in the first inning against the Houston Astros, a game they eventually would win 8-0. The New York Yankees, meanwhile, took a commanding 7-0 lead against the Rays. Meanwhile, the Red Sox led the Baltimore Orioles 3-2, and the Braves led the Philadelphia Phillies 3-2. If those scores held up, the Red Sox would be in, and the Braves would play the Cardinals in a one-game playoff.

But then the rain began falling in Baltimore.

“Once the tarp came out in Baltimore, I became concerned because our big plan to control our own destiny was in jeopardy,” says McQuade. “The Cardinal game was just about to end, and the Yankees-Rays game was a blowout. So we had a feeling the night was getting away from us.”

Once the Cardinals game ended, ESPN2 zeroed in on the Braves-Phillies game. And ESPN turned to the Yankees-Rays game.

“But that game went from 7-0 to 7-6 during the 90-minute rain delay,” says McQuade. “The rain delay actually could not have happened at a better time for us.”

The drama of the Rays’ return from a 7-0 deficit was continued in the bottom of the ninth inning. Dan Johnson, a former Oakland Athletic whose career has proved that the principles of Moneyball are not infallible, stepped to the plate with a .108 average for the season. The count quickly went to two strikes with two outs, and, according to the New York Times, the odds of the Rays’ making the playoffs fell to 0.2%.

But Johnson promptly launched the fifth pitch of the at-bat into the stands in the left-field corner, tying the game at one. The Rays and Yankees were headed to extra innings.

Meanwhile, the game between the Braves and Phillies went into extra innings when Chase Utley of the Phillies hit a sacrifice fly that tied the score in the top of the ninth. As if that weren’t enough, what was happening in Houston became a story as well, as the Cardinals came out from their locker room to watch the conclusion of the Braves-Phillies game.

Juggling Act
So now two games had gone to extra innings, Red Sox-Orioles was about to come out of a rain delay (the teams took the field at 11:05) for the final two innings, and the Cardinals decided to hang around the stadium in Houston to watch the end of the Braves-Phillies game.

About 20 minutes later, the Phillies took a 4-3 lead in the top of the 13th inning. The mood changed drastically in both Houston and Atlanta.

“We showed the Cardinals preparing the champagne and the players gathered around, but we had to allow the game telecast from Atlanta to finish their story of the dejection of the Braves,” says McQuade. “We didn’t want to interject the celebration until we were done telling the story in Atlanta.”

With the Braves’ loss, the National League regular season was over. ESPN had given viewers across the country a chance to watch the biggest collapse in National League history: over the past four weeks, the Braves squandered an 8.5-game lead for the wild-card playoff spot.

“We started the MLB season, and we wanted to end the regular season,” says McQuade. “We wanted to broadcast the conclusion, and we did.”

With the National League playoff picture cleared up, attention at ESPN turned to the two games in the American League.

“We have the celebration in Houston, and then we’re in the ninth inning in Baltimore, and [Boston Red Sox closer] Jonathan Papelbon is coming into the game, so we bring the audience to that game,” says McQuade.

Two quick strikeouts had the Orioles down to their final out. Again, according to statistics, the Red Sox had a 99.8% chance of winning the game at that point and, at the worst, face a one-game playoff the next day. But two quick doubles tied the score. Then, a sinking liner hit by Robert Andino to left was misplayed by Carl Crawford. The winning run scored, and suddenly, the Red Sox went from being in control to needing a Yankee victory. And ESPN once again found itself on the high wire.

“We brought the Sox game over to ESPN, and they lose, and there is a great sense that something is about to happen in Tampa,” says McQuade. “But we wanted to fully document the Red Sox walking off the field and looking dejected, then quickly get over to the Rays game. There were more than a few anxious moments.”

After about 90 seconds of showing the end of the Red Sox’ regular season, ESPN quickly cut over to the Rays-Yankees game, where the Rays were stepping up to bat in the bottom of the 13th inning. A quick strikeout by BJ Upton led to third baseman Evan Longoria’s stepping to the plate. A quick swing from Longoria launched a line drive 327 ft. down the left-field line and over the fence. The Rays, defying all odds, made the playoffs. And the Red Sox, defying all odds, eclipsed the Braves’ failure earlier in the night and became the first team ever to blow a nine-game lead in the final month of the season.

A Successful Night
“The night was a great example of how we serve the fan night in and night out,” says McQuade. “Our team makes sacrifices for the viewers to tell the story as well as it can be told. We just stayed back and let the story come to us. To the viewer at home, it doesn’t look extraordinarily difficult to do, but it is difficult to do well and communicate with that many people and get everyone to march the same way.”

Looking back, he already has a couple of things he would do differently. Having reporters on the field in all four ballparks would be a priority, and adding some robotic cameras that would provide different looks would also be desirable.

“Right now, we’re looking and reflecting on how to make it better next year,” McQuade adds, “and that was something we were doing until 3:45 on Thursday morning.”

With the regular season over, ESPN’s baseball coverage now shifts into playoff mode. There are about 40 more Baseball Tonight shows to be put together. And there will be live coverage from the playoff sites.

The extra energy on Wednesday also paid off in the ratings. The Red Sox game was the most-viewed Wednesday-night telecast since 1998, according to Nielsen, averaging 1.55 million households and 2.1 million viewers despite its not being shown in Baltimore or Boston. Afterward, the live coverage of Tampa Bay’s extra-inning comeback over the Yankees raised the bar even higher, with nearly 2.8 million households and more than 3.8 million viewers tuning in. Meanwhile, ESPN2’s Wednesday Night Baseball telecast, in which Philadelphia ended Atlanta’s postseason hopes, logged an additional 904,000 household impressions and almost 1.2 million viewers.