Sundays may feel like Saturdays on ESPN

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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Should you be walking along Yawkey Way some Sunday evening this summer and happen upon, say, someone who looks suspiciously like John Kruk putting on Wally the Green Monster’s costume head, try to resist the instinct to be alarmed.

Chances are it really is Kruk. And what you’ve stumbled upon is not some random bizarre city scene, but a telecast of ESPN’s long-running — and this season, altered — “Baseball Tonight’’ program.

For the first time since the program’s debut in 1990, ESPN is taking “Baseball Tonight’’ out of the studio and to the scene of the action. On Sunday nights, the program, featuring host Karl Ravech and analysts Kruk and Barry Larkin (an offseason acquisition after two seasons at the MLB Network), will originate live from the streets outside the site of ESPN’s exclusive “Sunday Night Baseball’’ broadcast. The onsite coverage will debut when the Dodgers host the Giants at 8 p.m. Thursday, the third game ESPN will air on Opening Day.

It’s not the most significant change the network has made to its baseball coverage this season. That would be the welcome news in December that Dan Shulman and Bobby Valentine were in and Jon Miller and the insufferable Joe Morgan were out as the network’s No. 1 broadcast team, with Orel Hershiser the lone holdover. The “Baseball Tonight’’ tweaks are necessary and have been for a while according to Jed Drake, ESPN’s senior vice president and executive producer of production.

“The opportunity to take ‘Baseball Tonight’ out on the road is something we should have done a long time ago,’’ said Drake.

He did not, however, go so far as to admit it’s a reaction to the ascent of the MLB Network, which has won positive reviews for its innovative programming since its December 2008 debut.

“We always aim to be better than our competition,’’ he said, “and we’ll do whatever is required to achieve that.’’

Including, it may seem to some, mirroring one of ESPN’s signature programs. Comparisons with the wildly popular “College GameDay’’ show, which originates from a different campus each Saturday during college football season, are as inevitable as they are logical.

But Ravech, who is beginning his 17th season as the “Baseball Tonight’’ host, said he doesn’t expect it to feel the same as “GameDay,’’ largely because the atmosphere and audience on a college campus on a Saturday afternoon is considerably different than that of a Sunday night baseball game.

So perhaps we won’t see Kruk serving, in the tradition of “GameDay’’ mascot-head-wearing aficionado Lee Corso, as the on-camera jester after all.

“I would say that a big part of the goal is to make the ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ telecast stand out and to make it feel like a much bigger event than unfortunately I think it’s become,’’ said Ravech. “I think our presence there, with the fans behind us . . . it will give a little more flavor to that, and in certain cities it’s going to be a smashing success. But to compare it to ‘College GameDay’ probably wouldn’t serve us well.

“I do think it’s going to elevate the event itself, and us being there also serves a great purpose to associate us with the games and the fans. We’ve missed on that a little bit in the last 17 years and I think the fans enjoy seeing us there and it helps our credibility.’’

There is little doubt that ESPN’s credibility will be enhanced during its “Sunday Night Baseball’’ game broadcasts. While Miller, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2010 Ford C. Frick Award winner, remained pleasant company during a broadcast, his jovial tone and polished style were eventually offset by Morgan, his broadcast partner of 21 years. The two-time National League Most Valuable Player and 1990 Hall of Fame inductee’s stubborn and ill-informed approach led to the aggravating conclusion that he must believe his stature in the game meant he no longer needed to bother to prepare or learn.

Shulman, who teamed with Hershiser for the past three seasons on ESPN’s “Monday Night Baseball’’ broadcasts, is an appealing, unobtrusive broadcaster in the same range stylistically as Sean McDonough and Dave O’Brien — who, it should be noted, will serve as the play-by-play voices for Monday and Wednesday night game telecasts, respectively. Valentine, the former manager of the Mets and Rangers, will rub some the wrong way — he is smart, and he’ll let you know he knows it. But he’s also a remarkably insightful analyst.

It’s no surprise that Hershiser, the 1988 NL Cy Young Award winner and World Series MVP for the Dodgers, is especially adept at discussing pitching in deep but accessible detail.

“I grew up with ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ with Joe and Jon, and they were able to analyze this broadcast like us as players. So retrospectively it’s sad,’’ he said. “But change is necessary sometimes, and this is change that we can look forward to and not be scared of, so I’m looking forward to it.

“I’ve worked with both Bobby [as well as played for him with the Mets] and Dan, he might be a future Hall of Famer. I call him ‘The Voice,’ that’s kind of his nickname, because whatever he does, he’s absolutely amazing at.’’

The trio, along with reporter Buster Olney, will be in Texas Friday to call the Red Sox’ 4 p.m. opener against the Rangers. Though they’ve worked a handful of games together this spring, it will be local viewers’ first clue as to whether Shulman, Hershiser, and Valentine can help recharge the franchise.

“I wouldn’t use that word [stale] to describe it, but I think after a 21-year run, anything, whether it’s a television series or anything else that’s been well produced, you always have to look at it and decide it’s time for an evaluation, and if you think so, ultimately a retooling of it,’’ Drake said.

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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