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Plenty of highlights on this trip

Action is nonstop at bustling ESPN

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Nowhere does the rivalry between the Evil Empire and Red Sox Nation crackle more intensely than here, on the "campus" of ESPN, built smack on the not-so-well-defined emotional boundary between New York and Boston.

It's an area where lucky cable subscribers get both New York's YES Network and Boston's NESN.

The 3,500-person ESPN workforce, like much of central Connecticut, is split between Red Sox and Yankee fans.

At 10:15 Tuesday night, a couple of visitors tiptoe onto the set of "Baseball Tonight" during the first break in the show's 9:30-11 p.m. telecast on ESPN2.

Karl Ravech, the Needham, Mass., native who's host of the show, doesn't miss a thing, recognizing a Bostonian and asking, "What did you think of this?"

His visitors are clueless, having come directly from a preview screening of ESPN's "Silver Anniversary Special," the two-hour show that will air at 8 p.m. on Labor Day.

"What happened?" is the response. "We haven't heard a score."

That's heresy at ESPN, where information is pumped out on cable, Internet, wireless, and every other form of communication known to man. You're expected to have caught the scores on your wireless PDA (personal digital assistant) or cellphone or -- if nothing else -- by ESP, maybe soon to be another ESPN subsidiary.

"Well, the Red Sox won, 10-7, but the Yankees lost, 22-0, to the Indians," said Ravech.

Now, with Ravech, John Kruk, Harold Reynolds, and Peter Gammons all looking at you, there's a pretty good chance your leg is being pulled.

Not tonight.

We've stumbled upon the set on one of those special nights when a gourmet meal of a main story has been served up to the four at the table. As Kruk says, "We've got to tip our hats to the New York Yankees for making it so exciting for us to go and do this TV show."

It's the calm between a storm in which production assistants run onto the set with "shot sheets," detailing the highlights Ravech will be describing as the show unfolds.

A graphic on the flat-screen monitor behind us says the 22-0 defeat is the worst shutout loss in Yankee history. Another later says, the Indians' Cleveland colleagues, the NFL's Browns, only matched the 22 points in three of their victories last season.

First, though, come the highlights of the 10-7 Sox victory over the Angels. A highlight of a Bill Mueller defensive play at third base prompts Reynolds to say, "That's big. It keeps the Angels from getting any momentum and thinking they can get back in the game."

Later, as the Angels get a ninth-inning grand slam off Mike Myers to cut the lead to 10-7, forcing the Sox to summon closer Keith Foulke, Reynolds adds, "This was a big victory by the Anaheim Angels to get into the Sox bullpen and make Foulke pitch."

Any time you watch masters of their craft at work, it's not the overall performance that amazes you; instead, it's the little things.

* Like watching Ravech, while doing highlights, glance at the bank of six 12-inch monitors just off the set and seamlessly update a highlight he's just given, instantly reporting developments in the last of the ninth inning of a Twins-Rangers game. How he can follow the action on that size screen from 20 feet away is mind-boggling, given a producer is talking in his ear, he's dealing with the highlights on the main monitor, and playing traffic cop for the three analysts on the set.

* And Gammons rattling a half-dozen of the day's transactions off the top of his head. (There's no teleprompter and he has no notes in front of him.)

* Gammons saying he won't be able to sleep all night, wondering what the New York tabloids will have to say about the Yankees game. The Daily News comes up with "Stinkees" while the Post has "Worst Loss Ever" and a photo of the Yankee Stadium scoreboard.

As the early show winds down (there's another at midnight, and more updates when the West Coast games end), you think it's time for the crew to take a breather.

No so fast. "SportsCenter," just starting off on ESPN at 11, wants to lead with the Yankees' historic loss. And what better way than by throwing the broadcast to the "Baseball Tonight" crew for a 90-second analysis.

Their rehearsal for "SportsCenter" consists of Ravech asking, "Who wants to go first?"

Kruk ("an absolute TV natural," says Gammons) says, "Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Gary Sheffield put it all on the line every night. Now, I apologize if Esteban Loaiza has a bad arm. But otherwise he quit on his team tonight with the junk he was throwing up there all night [8 hits, 6 runs in 3 innings of relief]."

Gammons adds, "The difference between Boston and New York is that the Sox' starters are 19-6 in August while the Yankees' starters have a 5.26 ERA since the break. That means they can't rest [Tom] Gordon, [Paul] Quantrill, and [Mariano] Rivera."

And Reynolds notes, "You're only as good as the next day's starter, El Duque [Orlando Hernandez]."

Finally, they're done.

Er, not so fast.

Now it's time to tape a segment for (an ESPN motion highlight).

Then the quartet adjourns to its "war room" to watch the late games and prepare for the midnight show.

Amazingly, after watching the anniversary special in which some classic ESPN gaffes are featured, this crew has done an hour of live TV without a major mishap.

"Every night it's a fire drill," said Gammons, referring to people and information flying all over the set. "But no one is better at staying on top of it than Karl. Just think, 30 teams times 25 players, and he's calling them off the cuff." From a monitor most mortals can barely see.

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