In his mid 90s pomp as TV critic of the London Evening Standard (Eldorado: ‘They said wait until December. Well it is December. And I have watched it. And it stinks.’), Victor Lewis-Smith campaigned vigorously for the return of the daytime test card. You know, the spooky one in which the girl with the preternatural smile plays noughts and crosses with her ghoulish clown doll. Anything, he argued, was better than Going for Gold, Neighbours, Home and Away, Esther,Vanessa,… It’s hard to argue.
VLS was writing at a time when most people were restricted to just four terrestrial channels. Today, with thousands of channels required to broadcast 24/7 on budgets that won’t stretch to a round of drinks, I wonder just how much TV executives must long to broadcast ol’ Spooky and Chucky for 18 hours a day.
Anyone who surfs the sports channels after 10pm can see the consequences: Bolivian football, Masters football (i.e. old blokes playing five-a-side at the local leisure centre), lacrosse, poker, pool, synchronised diving, golf. This summer, Sky discovered the beach: beach volleyball, beach cricket, beach football – beach anything as long as it’s cheap, goes on a bit and gives an excuse to broadcast some more ads for price comparison sites, car insurance, text dating services and Carol Vorderman (or sometimes that bloke who used to play James Herriot) offering to solve your money problems.
It’s fair to say that this is a world in which quality is not high. Presenters often have only a passing knowledge of their subject – this is where former Blue Peter presenters come to die – production values are low and coverage involving more than one camera a rarity. But frankly, who cares? Would you like to save money on your car insurance/flirt with lots of hot girls/consolidate all your debts into one, easy, affordable payment? Step up. Right here. Now where did I put that phone?
In this sea of lost souls, perhaps the last place you expect to find hope is Channel 5’s baseball coverage. But there it is. Every Wednesday and Sunday night (actually Thursday and Monday morning) from April to the end of October, Jonny Gould and Josh Chetwynd follow the 162 games of the regular season, culminating in the post-season play offs and the World Series, offering insight, knowledge and not a few laughs.
The format, relatively unchanged since its 1997 début, is fairly straightforward. Channel 5 has access to full ESPN coverage and, for the majority of the show, this is pumped straight into your living room. Games from the east coast and central states usually have a delay of one or two hours, games from the West Coast are often broadcast live.
Sunday Night Baseball with Jon Miller, Joe Morgan and Peter Gammons is an ESPN flagship and it is simply sports broadcasting of the highest quality. Miller and Morgan in particular have that enviable ability to appear to be just chatting over a beer while never missing a play. Every possible angle is covered and the technology - K Zone, super-slo-mo and a bewildering array of stats - is fully, but not intrusively, deployed. Not least, the overhead views of the ball parks are often stunning and live pictures from a glorious day in San Francisco, Chicago or New York often offer stark contrast to the dark night drizzling down your window.
In the States, the numerous breaks in play - end of innings, pitching changes, 7th innings stretch – are filled with commercials. In the UK, we return to the 5 studio where Jonny and Josh go through their paces.
Jonny Gould really should be presenting the beach cricket by now. He still has the habits of the daytime TV quiz host he once was - the cheesy catch phrases ‘Goooood eeeevening fellowbaseballnuts!’, the bouffant hair and the voice modulation, but somehow he seems to have been liberated by an injection of self-awareness which allows the viewers and his co-host to rib him mercilessly.
Perhaps the highlight of this season was when Josh claimed that the JG bouffant had, literally, peaked. This led to comparisons with Eddie Munster for which photographic evidence was immediately demanded and supplied. As the studio crew guffawed loudly in the background, you had to admit it was a decent likeness. He regularly refers to his ‘Sportsman’s 2:2’ and blatantly provokes viewer derision by extolling the virtues of Chelsea FC, Surrey CCC, the Atlanta Braves and, criminally, wearing a selection of appalling, garish, short-sleeved shirts.
The baseball expertise is provided by Josh Chetwynd. A former college and minor league catcher and, until 2007, an active player for the London Mets, Chetwynd has a gift for explaining the mechanics of this most technical of games - be it the difference between a slider and a curve ball, or why you should never pitch Manny Ramirez inside on a 3-2 count. Even better, unlike Mark Lawrenson, whose unscripted ‘jokes’ often meet a slow and agonising death on the Football Focus floor, he understands that Gould is the professional broadcaster, not him. The result is that both are completely comfortable in their roles and seem genuinely to like and respect each other. It’s worth comparing the warmth of their banter with the death stare that Manish Bhasin often seems to be sending dear old Lawro.
A key strength is that the show understands that its audience chiefly comprises baseball obsessives, students, the parents of newborn children, insomniacs and security guards. As such, it’s able to welcome their input without ever being patronising. Those watching live are referred to as ‘Hardcore’ while those of us who follow on tape are ‘Softcore’ but welcome none the less. A student drinking game has apparently built up around Gould’s numerous catch phrases ‘Josh’s favourite part of the show’, ‘It’s time foooor...7th innings stretch’ and he’s happy to oblige on cue every time. He’s also become increasingly obsessed with his fantasy baseball team. Josh remains unconvinced.
Less it be thought that it’s all knock about banter, both Gould and Chetwynd are happy to express an opinion when needed. When Barry Bonds finally overtook Hank Aaron’s all time home run record last season, Gould was keen to state that the achievement was tainted by the allegations surrounding Bonds’ use of steroids. Nor are they slow to point out when a pitcher has deliberately hit a batter, or a runner raised his cleats or dropped a shoulder when trying to reach base. When you’ve listened to Motson insisting endlessly that John Terry has ‘just gone for the ball there’ while the opposition clear up the dismembered limbs, such candour can come as a something of a shock.
So, next time you’re sitting there, glass or can in hand, wondering whether you really care if Graham Hick can knock this next ball from Sir Richard Hadlee into the Indian Ocean, I recommend that you give the baseball a try. Failing that, you can always go to bed.