Caught Looking Catches Audio When Baseball’s Not Looking

There is a moment on Caught Looking, MLB Productions and NBC Sports Group’s weekly collaborative look deep inside the game as the season progresses and postseason emotions swell, when Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, nearing the end of his 19-year career, turns to teammate Eric Hinske in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals just before his team pulls out a last-minute win, saying wistfully, “These are the games I’m going to miss.”

Reading those words isn’t the same as hearing Jones say them, and viewers get to hear them, thanks to the high degree of access that Caught Looking’s microphones have across both leagues. MLB Productions, working from MLB’s production and postproduction studios in Secaucus, NJ, is analogous to the NFL’s NFL Films division: each is the keeper of the archival flames for its respective league, and MLB Productions has more than 200,000 hours of sound and video stored in a kind of media Cooperstown. That cave of sound recordings is part of what inspires Caught Looking’s audio mission.

“There’s some incredible stuff in there,” says Robert Haddad, coordinating producer for MLB Productions on Caught Looking. “Some incredible wireless audio, especially from the managers. Epic arguments between [Baltimore Orioles manager] Earl Weaver and umpires. [Los Angeles Dodgers manager] Tommy Lasorda stalling during the 1981 World Series before he has to make a pitching change [to give the reliever more time to warm up]. [Detroit Tigers manager] Sparky Anderson shouting to Kirk Gibson, who’s about to face Goose Gossage of the Padres in the 1984 World Series, who has just owned Gibson up till then, ‘He don’t wanna walk you!’ and then Gibson hits a home run. That’s the kind of audio we’re trying to capture.”

Caught Looking takes viewers through the actual games but starts early with batting practice and ends with managers sitting in their offices autopsying the game for reporters. Between plays, comments by players add to a larger narrative that no highlight reel can offer. Haddad is able to wire more players than most viewers would get to hear in a typical broadcast game. The show has settled on a Lectroconics SMQ transmitter pack for all of its subjects, usually with a Countryman lavaliere microphone attached. The final mic choices, though, are generally determined by what’s on hand with the freelance crews contracted to cover the 14 teams captured in its first six weeks of shooting. Moleskin adhesive is used to secure the lavaliere to the jersey in front.

“The SMQ fits perfectly on the back belt loop of the baseball pants, like it was tailored for them,” says Haddad.

Hiding the microphone is a goal but not a strict one. On last Thursday’s show, one of the more garrulous players on the Oakland Athletics commented to teammates that his lavaliere was there when he pulled on his shirt. (A secret ambition of Haddad’s is that, someday, “The electronics will already be integrated into the jerseys.”) And MLB Productions provided one of the better audio moments of the season this year when it caught a wired-up Cleveland Indians’ second baseman Jason Kipnis singing Adele’s “Someone Like You” between plays, forgetting the microphone was there.

However, boom microphones are deployed as often as lavs are, deliberately serving the opposite purpose of the lavalieres: where lavs tend to make players forget they are being monitored and thus encourage candor, the booms remind them that they’re being listened to.

“The boom mics are a huge ally for us,” says Haddad, adding that they complete the show’s intended equation of being “discreet but not secretive. The boom reminds them that we’re listening but that we’re going to stand down if they ask us to. The booms get us into the media scrum to listen to the manager in the dugout before the game. They catch the natural sound on the field when we’re there for batting practice.”

That nat sound and other sound effects are captured using a combination of booms, lavs, and the occasional camera mic, as well as the effects from the local and national broadcasts of the games they’re covering. But Caught Looking is a posted show, and Haddad makes no bones about sweetening the sound with effects from MLB’s and other libraries. Beefing up effects like bat cracks and slides using authentic effects from actual games helps the show’s effects tracks cut through its overly present and somewhat generic music score, which is also sourced from libraries. All of this is edited and mixed in 5.1 surround on the pair of Fairlight Constellation workstations at the New Jersey studios.

Microphones have become totems in sports as they have in karaoke bars and wedding receptions after most of the champagne has been consumed, portals to project personalities afield, for better or for worse. Haddad recalls Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker’s telling one hitter who broke a slump while wearing a wireless microphone, “We’re gonna wire you for every game!”

But sound also reveals an authenticity that no conventional biography can. “[Tampa Bay Rays manager] Joe Maddon is known as a positive guy, and people write that about him all the time,” says Haddad. “But we had a microphone on him as the Rays were down 8-0 and they came back to win it. When you listen to him over the course of that game, down 8-0, that’s how you really understand just what being positive really is.”