Baseball is a tricky game to watch sometimes, but it’s even trickier if you are a broadcaster.
Stuff doesn’t happen all that often, and then, all of a sudden, all the stuff happens at once. If one person isn’t paying attention – and there are almost 75 people involved in every Toronto Blue Jays broadcast put together by the Rogers Communications Inc.-owned, all-sports cable network Sportsnet – they end up with dead air.
The stakes are high. Producers live in fear of seeing typos dancing their way across Twitter, and there’s only a four-second delay between the decisions made in the broadcast truck and the signal that ends up in hundreds of thousands of living rooms across the country 162 times a year.
But baseball’s opening day is especially tricky for the network, because it is when new tricks are added to the routine (this year introduces a super slow-motion camera and a pitch tracker) and rust needs to be shaken off.
“We can’t really test a lot of the stuff until we get in here and start doing things,” Sportsnet vice-president of production Rob Corte says a few hours before hitting the air. “But we’ve got a bit of time here, we’ll nail everything down.”
Sportsnet gave The Globe and Mail exclusive behind-the-scenes access to its broadcast, here’s what we found:
The big broadcast rig
Deep in the bowels of the Rogers-owned Rogers Centre, where the Rogers-owned Blue Jays play baseball that is broadcast exclusively on Rogers-owned radio and television stations, four transport trailers are scattered in the same garage they use to hold extra slabs of fake grass for the field.
Two of them are used as broadcast trucks – one for each team. The others are backups – each costs about $9-million to outfit with gear.
Sportsnet basically rents the setup from Dome Productions, a company Rogers Communications Inc. shares 50/50 with arch-rival BCE Inc.
The truck – which expands to twice its normal width when set up – is cut into three sections.
In the back, two technicians sit and watch all of the camera feeds for colour balance and light exposure. Something as simple as a cloud passing over can be incredibly jarring for viewers, if they don’t adjust the feed from inside the truck (golf is the worst sport for them, they insist).
The middle of the truck has the instant-replay team – they have access to everything that has ever happened, ever … almost. An entire season of tape used to fill a room but now can be kept on six portable hard drives, each the size of a deck of cards.
But the real action takes place up front, where producers watch feeds from 19 cameras in the stadium and decide what to show, when to show it, and decide which graphics to use next.
Director Troy Clara dominates the truck, yelling out instructions over his headset to camera men out in the field as well as his co-workers in the truck, as producer Doug Walton prepares him for what’s about to happen next as best he can.
Here’s what Clara sounded like as he decided which cameras to use when the Blue Jays were introduced on-field, prior to their game last Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians: “Eighteen you’re the next guy take him here we come standby the crowd here comes [Jose] Bautista it’s all about the crowd it’s all about the crowd take 16 next guy is on 18 next that’s it right in his face right in his face!”
He drinks a lot of water, but not too much.
“Bladder control is one of the main job requirements in the truck,” Corte says.
The first rule of the scoreboard club
The scoreboard’s operators sit high above the field next to the press box, essentially operating a television station that is broadcast live to the tens of thousands of fans in attendance each night. A producer is constantly making programming decisions, such as when to change graphics and which camera to cut to when doing live hits from the audience.
With 19 cameras covering everything that happens on-field, the dozen or so employees who operate the stadium’s 10-metres-by-34-metres video scoreboard have amazing footage of everything that happens during a baseball game. But there is one thing its operators must never, ever, ever, ever do: Show up an umpire after a controversial play.
Major League Baseball has strict rules regarding instant replays, and forbids any scoreboard operator in the league from showing anything that could be controversial.
That’s why fans will never see an instant super-slow-motion replay of a close double play, or get a closer look at the pitch that totally looked like a strike but was called a ball.
The jobs are varied – managing a giant TV screen is intricate work. One worker spends the night updating data, so fans know how many pitches have been thrown and where the batter is in a count. Someone else spends their night deciding which commercials should be sent to TV screens along the stadium’s concourses. There’s also deejay Jed Harper, who uses a laptop and turntable instead of an old-timey organ to fill the stadium with music.
This also where you’ll find Tim Langton. He’s the in-stadium announcer, but he’s also got his finger on the hottest button in the city.
Whenever the Blue Jays hit a home run, he turns to his right and presses the button on the wall to sound the 144-decibel homer horn (when measured from a foot away).
Mirrors, calculators, broadcast booths
Anyone watching a Blue Jays game on television might wonder at how announcers Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler always seem to have the right statistics at their fingertips.
Just how do they know third baseman Brett Lawrie usually strikes out when there are runners at first and second base, on a Tuesday, late evening, with one light burned out in left field and three girls making kissy faces at him?
The answer is: Scott Carson. He’s been sitting beside the announcers for two decades, slipping them notes and whispering details while they call the game. Things have changed a lot over time – when he started the job, he needed to keep track of every batter’s plate appearances and then use a calculator to adjust their hitting averages after each appearance.
“That’s all done by computer now,” Carson says. “But that makes it harder in some ways, too, because you need to dig deeper to find things and there’s a lot more to worry about in terms of what people expect when it comes to statistics.”
The television box sits high above home plate, and there is a stationary camera that is used when the announcers appear on screen. That’s why they have a nicer setup than their radio colleagues one level below – it’s far bigger and comes with a fancy Sportsnet-branded backdrop.
There’s even a mirror on the wall, so anyone venturing in can make sure there’s nothing in their teeth.
The radio booth, on the other hand, is about one-third of the size. Also, no mirror. (Although it’s rumoured newly hired radio analyst Jack Morris has been seen sneaking upstairs to check his hair between innings.)
Everyone loves a (potential) winner
While fans began gathering outside about an hour before the doors opened, the field was crawling with reporters in the hours before Rush front man and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee-to-be Geddy Lee threw the first pitch.
It’s not unusual to see the number of reporters swell on opening day, but this isn’t like any other opening day. When you boost your payroll by almost $40-million and add a Cy Young Award-winning knuckleball pitcher (R.A. Dickey) to your staff, people take notice.
“No, this isn’t usual,” says Jamie Campbell, who hosts the Sportsnet broadcast from one of four live sets prepared for the day. “This is the type of crowd you see at an All-Star Game. I’ve never seen anything like it here.”
The team wouldn’t say how many press passes are issued to a typical game, but did concede it issued 60 more than is usual. The press passes are worn around the neck, and come with a “No autographs” warning printed right on the front – just in case anyone loses their mind and asks Bautista to sign a ball or a bicep.
Meanwhile, beat reporters who have covered the team for years grumbled to their younger counterparts about having to sit in an assigned seat in the press box – for the first time any of them can recall.
Life’s pretty good once they’re up there, though.
The press box is up on the 300 level, and has tiered seating along long rows. Each reporter has a power outlet and a phone, and dozens of papers prepared for them to help them look up stats quickly.
That’s all well and good, but the real action is at the buffet table. All manner of stadium food is available for the members, including a popcorn maker that is constantly being refilled.
But future journalists take note: There’s a warning sign on the soft drink machine that says it will be turned off exactly one half-hour after the game ends.
The world can be so unjust.