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ESPN turns Sunday night at the diamond into a gem


Each week, as the ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" tour makes its next stop, director Marc Payton makes a simple, earnest request of the baseball gods.

"We want the game well-pitched and well-played. Roaring crowd, home team wins it in the bottom of the ninth. That's what we root for. That would be the perfect script," said Payton.

Sometimes the gods listen and provide an interesting, eventful game that ends in three hours or less, sending the audience seamlessly into "SportsCenter" at 11 p.m.

And then, as with Oakland's 14-6 rout of the Orioles on Sunday, the gods snicker cruelly, turning a 3-3 game in the fifth into an ugly rout in just a few minutes, compounding the misery by making the contest drag out toward the midnight hour, almost certainly sending thousands of viewers to bed early.

To combat the vagaries of the baseball gods, the 20 or so people who travel each week, as well as the best in available local free-lance talent, work hard at presenting the game in its best possible light, better perhaps than the sport deserves, given all its self-inflicted problems.

In a very real sense, ESPN has become the owner of the lamented "Game of the Week" telecast, where the entire baseball world comes to one place for one nationally televised game.

"We definitely approach it that way," said producer Phil Orlins. "We don't have the kind of flexibility of schedule that the networks had, but as far as being the only truly nationally televised game of the week, we're it."

Toward that end, everything is bigger, from the number of cameras (14) to the number of tape machines (8) to the graphics packages and replays, which are dazzling and full of useful and timely information.

For instance, late in Sunday's telecast, as Armando Benitez closed one of the worst performances of the year by the Orioles bullpen, the truck produces a graphic showing that the relievers had surrendered 10 earned runs in 3 1/3 innings.

In the Baltimore sixth, the best moment of the night occurs, when the crew gets great live footage of Brady Anderson's double to left, as well as three terrific replay angles from cameras trained down the third base line, behind the plate and from center field.

The teams and locations, of course, change from week to week, but the wonderful constant of "Sunday Night Baseball" is the team of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, who form one of the strongest announcer tandems in sports broadcasting.

"They are the engine that makes this run," said Orlins. "Jon and Joe can't have a good game if we have a bad game."

As usual, Miller and Morgan were brilliant. Morgan, a Hall of Fame second baseman, was prescient in the fifth when he warned that Orioles starter Sid Fernandez was "starting to worry about things other than getting the hitter out" when Oakland's Brent Gates reached on a leadoff double. One batter later, Craig Paquette blasted a homer to center to tie the game at 3.

Miller, the longtime radio voice of the Orioles, was urbane and witty as usual, coming up with the gem, "Bret Barberie loves to surf. That's how he stays in shape in the off-season. Just like you and me, Joe. Looking for that perfect ride."

And on most Sunday nights, they've got it.

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