When MLB decided that it would launch its own network channel on cable, they were savvy enough to make its distribution part of the MLB Extra Innings package that very nearly became a monopoly of DirecTV. With a broader distribution deal through the likes of the iN Demand cable consortium, when launched on Jan. 1 this year, it became the largest cable channel launch in history reaching approximately 50 million households.
With a channel dedicated 24/7/365 to baseball, it has required an ever growing stable of on-air talent to fill out programming. In early November last year, MLB Network announced their first studio host to begin the process of filling out their roster. Their selection was Matt Vasgersian, who had been the Padres play-by-play announcer. Prior to the Padres, Vasgersian had held the play-by-play duties for the Brewers, had been a member of NBCâs 2008 Olympic coverage, was part of FOX NFL telecasts, teaming with J.C. Pearson, and was the lead broadcaster for the ill-fated XFL.
Vasgersian has been a regular staple on MLB Tonight, MLB Networkâs premier live studio show. As the profile of sports studio hosts have changed from straight reporter to comedic, and sometimes edgy personalities, Vasgersian has fit the mold, although sometimes with commentary that some have said crosses the line.
During a late April broadcast of MLB Tonight, Vasgersian did a âlook alikeâ reference involving footage of Colorado Rockies outfielder Brad Hawpe's neck injury. Hawpe was taken to a hospital with a possible concussion after he was hit in the neck by San Diego catcher Nick Hundley's throw to second. Vasgersian asked the production team to reshow the footage of Hawpe being carted off the field in a neck brace. Referencing a member of the Rockies EMT staff, Vasgersian quiped, âIsnât that Donavan McNabb?â
The next day, the footage became a YouTube sensation, and became highly talked of across the blogsphere. The next day, Vasgersian apologized on several websites, including here at The Biz of Baseball (see his apology in the comments here). That evening, he apologized to the broadcast team and the fans.
We caught up with Vasgersian this past Friday to talk about MLB Network, the 2009 season, and ask him about the on-air McNabb gaff. The interview changed decidedly when it was announced on Thursday that Dodgers leftfielder Manny Ramirez had been suspended 50 games for being in violation of MLBâs drug policy. And while all questions were baseball related leading up to the interview, when we found out that Vasgersian once did reviews for Rolling Stone, we had to end on a lighter note and ask, âWhatâs on your iPod?â
Select Read More to see the interview with MLB Networkâs Matt Vasgersian
Maury Brown for the Business of Sports Network: This interview was decidedly different before yesterday, but with the news that Manny Ramirez has been suspended 50 games for being in violation of baseballâs drug policy, baseball is dealing with another dark moment. What were your thoughts when you first heard the news?
Matt Vasgersian: The initial guttural reaction was, âWow, thatâs big.â And then after no more than a couple of minutes you say, âWhy should we be surprised?â Thereâs not a single player in baseball that if we learned that they failed a drug test that weâd be completely out-of-your-brain shocked. And then after a little more thought, as you try to put your own kind of perspective to it, itâs offensive. Itâs offensive because when a Manny Ramirez should know better â my God, who doesnât need to do this stuff â who has all the best advice that money can buy, after all; when you continue to do something that is expressly forbidden, itâs as if youâre flying in the face of the fans. Itâs just a big middle finger extended to Major League Baseball and the fans. I mean, these guys can keep their denials going when microphones are on, they can assign blame to everything from a quack doctor to misreading a label to being deceived to complete ignorance to doing it for erectile dysfunction, which seems to be the sexy excuse now, and itâs all nonsense. Weâre not that dumb â the fans arenât that dumb. And, for them to keep flying these lies out there just means that they think weâre all idiots. And thatâs what offends me the most. You know, put whatever you want in your body; cheat if you want to cheat, but donât think that I donât know.
Bizball: MLB Networkâs roster has a considerable number of former players. What was their reaction to the news?
Vasgersian: I think that our reactions were all very similar. It wasnât shock, that is too strong a word. It was surprise, initially, and then it was, you know, âHereâs another big name player that falls.â Itâs unfortunate, but true that the way we are now â weâve been doing this a while, not just because of Manny, but we say, âYouâre a guy. Youâre a guy. Youâre a âroid guy. Youâre a âroid guy.â All I need to do is flip over to the back of your baseball card and see just a couple of ridiculous years of power numbers spike, and then we look at your body, and here it gets back to the same thing, Iâm not stupidâŠ
Bizball: Not to interrupt, but Matt, I guess I feel like Iâve been short changed. Itâs not that steroids bug me all that much, itâs that I canât go to a game now and have to second guess whether some guy is on PEDs. Has it taken away some of the innocence of the game for you?
Vasgersian: Yes, it can. But, I look at it this way: the closer you get to anything, the more the bloom comes off the rose. And whether Iâm working in Major League Baseball, or whether I was a rock and roll critic reviewing concerts and albums for Rolling Stone, the closer that I would get to my favorite artists, I would probably find myself, at times, being a little more disappointed, because you just learn more â that theyâre all just people. And when you get that access, sometimes the information that you get with it isnât the most flattering. So, baseball survives itself, I know that sounds clichĂ©, but Iâm not going to let it abate my love for baseball just because some guy is using âroids in the 1990s and 2000s. It isnât going to take away my great memories of baseball when I was a kid, and I guess thatâs why weâre all still involved in this game.
Bizball: With the suspension, what are your thoughts on his chances for entering the HOF once his career is over?
Vasgersian: Thatâs a great question, because I think we can say looking back on guys like Palmiero, and Sosa, and McGwire, theyâre going to have a tough time getting into the building. The two real unsettled cases now in my mind are going to be Clemens, because I donât think you can say with certainty that heâs not going to get in â he had cultivated so much good will that writers prior to his foibles â and then Manny. While Manny probably isnât the hero he was in Boston, his profile in baseball, although itâs kind of the knucklehead thing sometimes, the whole Manny being Manny thing is endearing to a lot of people. It is hard to argue with his numbers, and I donât know that a lot of voters will bother to scratch at this positive test. Things that weâve heard bantered around the building these last couple days are that heâs been on and off this stuff for quite a while. And again, that shouldnât surprise anybody. Thatâs all rumor and speculation, which leads to the question, âDid the guy do one cycle and then get off of it?â Thatâs unlikely, especially when heâs using stuff like this female fertility drug, which according to what weâve learned now, is part of a habitual userâs ritual.
Bizball: Deviling into how working at MLB Networkâs studio is like, is the atmosphere different on a day when news such as the Ramirez suspension or A-Rod admission that he used steroids happens?
Vasgersian: Man is it ever. And I lead the charge, because I am a sourpuss on days like yesterday. None of us like doing this stuff, none of us. We go from reporting on games and competition and brief stats in the context of the game, which we all love. And, we go from that to being a news agency, which stinks... I mean, the day of A-Rod thing I let everybody know that Iâm no Ted Koppel. I struggle with the breaking news stuff, especially when it's news like A-Rod did steroids or Manny did steroids. Weâre all aware that we donât want to be the type of shop that just starts speculating on who else is out there; what does this mean? When you have the long format that youâve seen on the cable dial for the last two decades, you can just talk yourself into a hole. Iâve done it. I think weâve seen, not in terms of a steroids conversation, but itâs a lot of leash. When itâs something that makes you so bitter â something like steroids â you tend to kind of frown on the screen on hours at a time. Iâm very self-aware that I donât want to be doing that, but itâs hard to avoid.
Bizball: Shifting gears, youâre seeing the footage from the ballparks every night. Many times, weâre seeing empty seats behind home plate due to the cost of premium seats. How much do you feel the economy is impacting filing certain seats at the ballpark?
Vasgersian: Yeah, the economy is the easy thing to point to, but in a good economy or a bad economy, people come out when you win. And since attendance always tends to be a retroactive kind of thing, reflecting pervious years success or failure, youâre seeing certain ballparks real empty real early in the season, which is very disconcerting. Itâs something that weâre all tempted to talk about on air, but weâre trying not to. We havenât been given that edict but itâs striking when you watch a Yankee game, and you see how many seats are empty right behind the plate. Or in Cincinnati the other night there were a lot of empty seats, and in Pittsburgh. Itâs easy to pile on cities like those, because they havenât won in so long. We all want those cities in particular to succeed. Thereâs weather â thereâs all these excuses â kids are still in school. I just think if a team wins, people will go. Look at the Royals. The Royals had nearly 33,000 people in the stands yesterday for a day game. Theyâre fun to watch, and people respond to that.
Bizball: Itâs still fairly early in the season, but weâre seeing some surprises in the standings. The Royals and Blue Jays are sitting atop their Divisions while Yankees are 5.5 games out. When the season ends, which of the surprise teams at the beginning of the season do you think will be there at the end?
Vasgersian: I still like the Reds, although I wouldnât call them in it right now. I still think maybe theyâve done themselves a favor by not getting out of the gates red hot like the Diamondbacks going 20-8 last April, and then the precipitous demise they had the rest of the season. I like the Reds. I donât want to be too bandwagony right now, but itâs kind of hard not to like the Royals right now. Theyâve got the best starting pitcher in baseball at this moment. Add Jacobs, and Crisp. Youâve got guys like Teahan and Buck, and the rest of that lineup that is kind of a year older and wiser. Theyâve got the closer, theyâve got the shortstop; theyâre good up the middle. I really like the Royals, and I think it would be a great thing for baseball if they were to resurrect themselves. Thereâs probably two entire generations of kids now who are younger than you and I, Maury, who know the Royals as being nothing but a cellar dweller; not remember the â70s and â80s and how they were just a perennial power in the A.L.
Bizball: Doing live television, which MLB Tonight is, can be a bit tricky. In late April, you compared a member of the Rockies' EMT staff to Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb while a clip was shown of Rockies rightfielder Brad Hawpe being taken off the field after being hit by a baseball in the back of the neck. You went on to apologize on the air the next day, as well as on some websites, The Biz of Baseball included (see Vasgersianâs apology in the comments here under the title, âAgree with all of the aboveâ). Can you tell me what the reaction was from the producer after you were off-the-air? Did it slip by?
Vasgersian: No, it didnât slip by, because I wasnât going to let it slip by. I offered up my take on it as soon as we got off the air. The producers usually pop out of the control room right at the end of a three hour chunk, and you do that kind of immediate face-to-face, âHey great show. Hey bad show. This went well and this went great.â As soon as we convened after that show I said, âYou guys, I screwed you there by having you roll back that tape.â I apologized to them first, because they were unwittingly complicit in my failed joke. So I let them know that I made the mistake and I wasnât pleased. I wasnât about to just blow that off, because I knew as soon as I said it, it was very poorly timed. So I let them know that I would go on the offense and wasnât going to let them take the bullet from anybody. I knew I was going to get a lot of grief for that, as I deserved.
Bizball: As mentioned, you went on the air, and posted apologies online. As far as the online part, was this something you felt you needed to go directly to the fans about? What was the impetuous to going online and making personal apologies to the fans directly?
Vasgersian: I felt like I needed to do that directly, because people who watch the showâŠ I donât want to put everyone in a box here, but we donât necessarily have our hard core viewers with us every night. I think the internet drives so much of our content success, and as is the case with everything on TV, sports in particular, the internet is as big of portal for that product as watching it on your TV. So, most people who saw that didnât see it on MLB Tonight, they saw it on You Tube. I think this is important too, Iâve been reminded of this often, even aside from this episode, I think that I have more of a bloggerâs perspective than not. The internet users in the internet community â while some of them are a little out there â for the most part, are people that I feel I can relate to the best; people with perspective, people that probably enjoy a little humor. Obviously this was a failed attempt at that. I think itâs important not to be hypocritical here too. There are a lot of people who do what I do â analysts, play-by-plays, hosts â that have that kind of âscrew the internetâ mentality, like, âScrew the bloggers. Theyâre all losers. They sit at home on the computer. Get out. Get a job,â that kind of mentality, as well. If I were to feel like that, Iâd be a total hypocrite, because I read the blogs; I enjoy them. Thatâs why I was sensitive to this, and why I felt I had to address it, because Iâm a user and a member of that community. So, if I were to all of a sudden say, âOh yeah, screw the blogs,â that would have been completely hypocritical, because within a week Iâd be reading Biz of Baseball, Iâd be reading Awful Announcing, Iâd be reading DeadspinâŠ Those are the first places that I went when I knew that I screwed up. I figured as a user in those communities online that I needed to address my own foibles.
Bizball: You were the first on-air talent that MLB Network announced as hiring. Since being a part of MLBN from a very early stage, how do you view the network in terms of what it offers fans, and what the future for MLB Network might be like in the future?
Vasgersian: I think that weâre going to look a lot different than we do now in subsequent years. Perhaps as early as next season. I think what weâve been doing is great; Iâve really been pleased with it. But weâre not there yet. Weâre not nailing it. Weâve had some initial success and I donât think that any of us want to be convinced that weâve become so good that we can keep plugging away on this current template; that would be a mistake. We all have our frustrating moments. From producers to announcers, feel like there are things that we can do differently and better. If left to my own devices, I would be a slave of old footage. I think itâs such a great resource that we share a building with MLB Productions, whose archives are vast. If we get into a discussion point on say, Willie MontaĂ±ez, as we did the other day, we can produce a little Willie MontaĂ±ez roll to pop on the air 20 minutes later after a commercial break. That is just awesome, I absolutely adore that, and its one of the things I enjoy most about play-by-play. If the Padres were playing the Cardinals, and it was an anniversary of a Stan Musial base hit, or if there was some cause to remember a Jose Oquendo double, we could try to get that footage and roll it in. We could do that until weâre blue in the face at the network, which I just love. Thereâs probably a lot of guys out there like you and I, who were the ones buying retro jerseys before they were cool. We were playing fantasy leagues as early as the mid to late â80s. I like to speak to guys like that, and I think we can do that on the network.
Bizball: Finally, Iâd be remiss if I didnât mention thisâŠ You mentioned covering music for Rolling Stone. What is on Matt Vasgersianâs iPod playlist? Who are some of artists that you enjoy?
Vasgersian: Iâm a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to my musical taste. Itâs not that Iâm one of those guys that poo-poos everything post-1998 and says, âAll I like his old stuffâ because thatâs untrue. Iâm a huge Springsteen-file. To be working in New Jersey, the irony in that is not lost on me. I love âThe Wrestlerâ because they shot it at Asbury Park and Springsteen wrote the theme song. Van Morrison is probably one of my favorite artists. I saw him do the Astral Weeks performance at the WaMu Theater. He performed it live here in New York City, which I thought was awesome. Iâll make a case that The Who was, and is, the greatest rock and roll band ever. I would make a multi-platformed argument with that case. I do enjoy a wider range of music than most in terms of Big Band, vocals, classicalâŠ. I listen to pretty much everything except for hardcore rap and techno. I guess Iâd put a constant shuffle of Van Morrison, Springsteen, The Who and maybe Elvis Costello on my iPod and just let it play until I die.
- Interview conducted on Friday, May 8, 2009 by Maury Brown
- Interview transcribed by Nick Kappel
- Extra thanks to Kappel for assisting in the transcription process
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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