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Farmer: ESPN should have fun (Oct. 3)

Douglas Farmer | Monday, October 3, 2011

Some know it as “The Evil Empire.” Some know it as the “Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.” Most know it as “ESPN.”

For months, if not years, ESPN has toed, and all-too often crossed, the line between unbiased journalism and the money-making of a monopoly.

On Tuesday and Wednesday night, ESPN showed how good it can be, in primetime no less. As counter-intuitive, cold-hearted and cut-throat as it may sound, ESPN is at its best as a money-making monopoly.

On Tuesday night, the Bristol, Conn., conglomerate aired a documentary — using the loosest definition of the word— about Steve Bartman and the circumstances that made him famous. For those who don’t cringe, cry or scream at the sight of that name, Bartman, a diehard Cubs fan and indeed a Notre Dame graduate, tried to catch a foul ball at Wrigley Field when the Cubs were five outs from the 2003 World Series. In doing so, Bartman knocked the ball away from leftfielder Moises Alou’s glove. The gaffe led to a spiral only the Cubs could execute, and they lost the NLCS the next night.

In “Catching Hell,” director Alex Gibney tried to understand what led to Bartman’s exile from Cubs-dom. Gibney, largely thanks to ESPN’s vast resources, delves into the fragile psyche of Cubs fans and the events of Oct. 14, 2003. Before long, Bartman’s plight appears as an inevitable one for whomever sat in Section 4, Row 8, Seat 113.

No other media or entertainment organization could have pulled off this endeavor with the craft Gibney and ESPN did. As its “30 For 30” series showed, ESPN can do some things nobody else can, and do them very well.

But then came Wednesday night, and ESPN raised its game another few notches. With four Major League Baseball games to be played in primetime, and all four drastically affecting the playoff picture, ESPN created and accepted a challenge no other broadcaster would have been bold enough to brainstorm.

The higher-ups at ESPN thought something along the lines of, “Four games are being played at one time? Wow, that could get interesting. You know what would be cool? If we actually showed all four games. Yeah, let’s do that.”

Instead of pressuring the commissioner’s office to spread the games throughout the afternoon and evening, ESPN created drama of the highest order. Three of the four games came down to the final at bats, postseason fates swinging in the balance.

When the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Boston Red Sox with a walk-off single, the Red Sox had exactly three-and-a-half minutes to gather their things from the dugout, trudge down the hallway to their locker room and look up at the TVs. There David Ortiz, Terry Francona and Jonathan Paplebon saw the Tampa Bay Rays’ Evan Longoria hit a walk-off home run of his own. The line drive over the wall sent the Rays into the playoffs, the Red Sox home and baseball fans across the country into figurative cardiac arrest.

No other broadcaster has the resources, the abilities or the brash confidence to air four games at once. If ESPN had not gone for it, baseball fans, and sports fans in general, would have been robbed of the real-time drama transpiring across the country.

These are the things ESPN excels at. It is time for Jim Gray to stop acting like a journalist during “The Decision.” It is time for the businessmen at ESPN to leave Bruce Feldman alone when he tries to do his job to the best of his abilities.

Notice, Gray has not been seen much since his debacle, and Feldman left ESPN for CBS in September.

ESPN should take a note from these moves. Leave the journalism behind. Pursue the things no one else can do — partly because even a documentary must have a slant and because journalists aren’t able to adequately watch four games at once. Keep doing them excellently.

Really, live up to the phrase everyone throws your way. Do the fun things. Be “those guys.”

Those guys have all the fun.

The views expressed in the Sports Authority column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.



Contact Douglas Farmer at [email protected]