Those of us who weren’t amongst the 27,069 lucky fans in attendance for Johan Santana’s no-hitter on Friday night still had our ways to keep up with it. We either watched the game on SportsNet New York, hanging on every word from Gary Cohen, or we switched our radios to WFAN and took in Howie Rose’s account of the game. Living in the Midwest, I was fortunate enough to see the game on SNY through my MLB.TV subscription. Dad and I were sky-high after Johan got David Freese to chase his 134th pitch and give fans something they hadn’t seen in over half a century of Met baseball.
MLB.TV kept their coverage of the event until after Johan’s postgame on-field interview when SNY went to commercial break, at which point we flipped on the TV to America’s one-stop shop for all things sport, ESPN. After the NBA playoff game ended they went straight to SportsCenter, where something had pre-empted their analysis of the just-finished basketball game. It was cool to see the Mets lead off the network’s signature show, but something seemed kind of off about the coverage. Dad and I were disappointed that the two SC anchors, Scott Van Pelt and Robert Flores, weren’t showing nearly the level of excitement the special occasion commanded. After Mike Baxter’s heroic catch in the 7th, they show shortstop Omar Quintanilla almost colliding with “new left fielder” Kirk Nieuwenhuis, implying he was an emergency body rather than a regular at the position moving over from center. But the kicker came at the tail end of the segment when Robert Flores noted four times previously a Met has taken a no-hitter into the 9th, with three of those coming from the great…Steve Carlton. Flores corrected himself later on the show and tweeted that he was handed a bad fact, but that doesn’t change what went out on the air, or that the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” mistook Tom Seaver for another team’s ace.
The biggest difference between ESPN’s coverage of major sporting events and that of the local networks is the familiarity and investment into the individuals and teams that the latter embraces and the former lacks. ESPN is successful because it gives viewers non-stop coverage of just about every sport out there. You want baseball, you got it. You want football, you got it. Basketball, hockey, soccer, racing, you can find it all on SportsCenter. This is great for people who want to at least keep up with it all, and most of the time the model works effectively. The problem lies in occasional special events, such as Johan’s no-hitter. It is not possible for ESPN anchors to know every team from every league inside and out. This means when, say, the Kansas City Royals toss a no-hitter, or a historic record in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization is broken, the duo anchoring SportsCenter cannot get as excited as the men and women anchoring the hometown coverage do. They simply do not know the teams as well as those who are with them 24/7.
The same principle can be applied when one wants to buy, for example, a new recliner chair. You could go to Wal-Mart and get a perfectly serviceable chair for a lower price, but most of the workers there may not know everything about recliners, and you may end up with one that does not fit your preference as precisely as it could. You could also go to a furniture specialty store, and while the price may be a little more, the workers there know their stuff and can find you a recliner that fits you better and you can feel more at one with.
ESPN in this case knew a little about everything, the Mets and their history included, but did not know enough to completely satisfy their customers who were seeking great coverage of Johan’s no-hitter. I understand that the network will never be able to completely satisfy every team all the time; it is logistically impossible. However, there are certain things they could improve upon. First, a couple more layers of fact-checking might help (Steve Carlton? Really?). Second, the network could benefit by bringing in a little more local flair in their coverage of big events. Mets fans are fortunate in that New York is big enough to warrant its own special section of ESPN (the same goes with fans in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles). The network will occasionally bring in local reporters to talk via phone, but doing that more often will more groups of fans to feel included and special when their teams make history.
In some places, this sort of all-encompassing business model cannot coexist with the local producers; they love their just-furniture stores so much in Germany that they actually kicked Wal-Mart out a few years ago. Americans do not have to kick out ESPN in the same fashion, though. ESPN is great for certain things, but fans need to recognize there are certain things the big-box Worldwide Leader cannot provide. In this case, for the most complete coverage of the kind history we saw on Friday night, Met fans are best off keeping it with Gary Cohen and Howie Rose on SNY and WFAN.