ESPN shows un-Ruthian effort in its jerry-built documentary


It's a tribute to the legend of Babe Ruth that the impending 50th anniversary of his death warrants not one, but two commemorative specials.

But the first of those programs, tonight's "Outside the Lines: Babe Ruth's Larger Than Life Legacy" (ESPN, 7: 30 p.m.), doesn't do the great Bambino's life the justice it should.

Frankly, the 60-minute special has something of a feel of a program that was thrown together to try to get the jump on a competitor, namely HBO, whose Ruth special airs next month, closer to the Aug. 16 date of the Baltimore native's death.

It's not the first time an ESPN program or feature has miraculously turned up ahead of someone else's show, and one wonders why the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports" isn't more interested in producing better, rather than faster, television than its competitors.

The perception of haste is not true of the entire project. Coordinating producer Chris Martens, who collaborated with Ruth's late daughter Dorothy Ruth Pirone on the book, "My Dad, The Babe," has assembled an informative hour of recollections, footage and photos.

The show does well to examine Ruth's prodigious athletic accomplishments, and to place them in context next to today's feats. In one interesting segment, current Yankee Paul O'Neill and other modern-day players try to swing a replica of Ruth's 46-ounce bat, a mammoth piece of lumber compared to today's lighter sticks.

But, absent a fascinating revelation about Ruth's burning desire to manage the Yankees and a letter to former general manager Larry MacPhail two years before his death pleading for the opportunity, tonight's hour turns up little more about the human side of one of the most extraordinary figures of the 20th century.

Perhaps the poorest decision of Martens and the show's other producers was to cast actor Joe Don Baker as the program's host. Baker, who played "The Whammer," a Ruth-like character in the film, "The Natural," delivers the narration in a flat monotone, with barely a feel for the subject and very little visible emotional connection. This appears to be just another role for Baker, and that's most unfortunate. The Babe deserved better.

Don't worry, pay money

Since ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN signed up for almost $18 billion in rights fees to the NFL for the next eight years, there has been considerable buzz (fueled by NBC and Turner, which ducked out) that the networks won't be able to turn a profit on the deals.

Not to worry, says Ravens owner Art Modell, who will return to the league's broadcasting committee soon. Modell said the contracts, which can be re-opened after five years, are backloaded, meaning the networks will pay more at the end of the deal than in the first few years.

And even if the networks did take a loss, Modell said, the benefits of having football have to be factored in.

"These networks [leaders] are not stupid people. Some of the intangible benefits are important. You take CBS on Sundays. The lead-in to '60 Minutes' is important as well as the ability of Fox to promo new shows during the week. You can't get that kind of audience," said Modell.

Network deals

ABC apparently made decent hay from the final two rounds of the British Open, drawing a 5.8 national Nielsen overnight rating and 17 share for Sunday, and a 4.0/13 on Saturday, the highest Open numbers in 10 years.

Meanwhile, CBS and moppet skater Tara Lipinski have agreed on a deal in which she will appear in four network skating specials next season.

Lipinski, who won the Olympic gold medal in Nagano last winter, also will do some network identifications, on-air promos and anti-drug public service announcements.

The annual disclaimer

Chant this liberally:

There is no baseball trading deadline. There is no baseball trading deadline. There is no baseball trading deadline.

No matter what you read or hear between now and next Friday, the aforementioned trading deadline does not exist. After July 31, the ability of clubs to make trades becomes substantially more difficult, as players must clear waivers to be dealt. The only deadline of sorts comes on Aug. 31, the date when players must be on a roster to be eligible for postseason.

But, remember the chant: There is no baseball trading deadline.

Weekend ratings

The ratings for the top 10 most-watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore last weekend:

Event, Day, Ch., R/S

Orioles-Angels, Fri., 54, 7.9/18

Orioles-Rangers, Thu., 54, 7.3/12

Orioles-Angels, Sat., 54, 6.3/16

British Open, Sun., 2, 3.9/11

Senior Golf, Sat., 13, 2.3/7

Women's golf, Sun., 11, 2.3/6

Goodwill Games, Sun., 13, 2.1/6

British Open, Sat., 2, 2.0/7

Open highlights, Sun., 2, 2.0/5

Senior golf, Sun., 13, 1.9/5

R-Rating. S-Share

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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