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Toronto Blue Jays' Gregg Zaun hits a single against the Seattle Mariners in the sixth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 1, 2008, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson)
Toronto Blue Jays' Gregg Zaun hits a single against the Seattle Mariners in the sixth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 1, 2008, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson)

USUAL SUSPECTS

Gregg Zaun makes full-time move from behind plate to front of camera Add to ...

Gregg Zaun says he had models to guide him in his conversion from everyday baseball player to everyday baseball TV analyst. Bad models.

"I didn't want to be like other former players who'd gone into broadcasting," the 16-year vet says on the threshold of his inaugural Toronto Blue Jays TV campaign with Rogers Sportsnet.

"I didn't want to be one of those guys who talked the whole time about himself. I know you have to relate your own experience to your own career, but there are guys who take every opportunity to pat themselves on back about what they did. Besides, other than winning a World Series ring [with the Florida Marlins in 1997] I haven't done that much special stuff."

In other words, Zaun wants the players and the game to be the stars of his work.

So how long did it take him to say yes to the assignment as studio host when Sportsnet came calling after Zaun's retirement this month?

"Oh, about two seconds," he says with a laugh. "It's where I always wanted to be, staying in the game by explaining what's happening on the field. I see working in the studio with Jamie [Campbell]as a way to get comfortable in my first year away from playing."

Whether he likes it or not, Zaun may still become a star once he gets the hang of full-time studio and game broadcasts. A catcher with the Blue Jays and eight other big-league clubs, Zaun takes after his uncle - former catcher Rick Dempsey - with his off-beat sense of humour about the game. Zaun's Sportsnet studio work during the postseason the past few years with Campbell was punctuated by his droll symposiums on inside baseball.

Flashing his World Series ring, Zaun lucidly shows the grips for various pitches, explains placement of the fielders against certain hitters and breaks down in-game strategies. He is still a tad raw, but the absence of the slickness seen in other former players on TV seems to add to his cachet.

Like so many other catchers-turned-broadcasters, Zaun found playing behind the plate a great primer for TV work.

"You see the whole game in front of you from the catching position," he explains. "You have to know what everyone on the field is doing and where they're positioned. The catcher is often a liaison for the manager to the players, too. The position teaches you everything you need to know about the people you play with and against."

Zaun - who will also serve as a part-time analyst on Sportsnet Radio Fan 590 and the Blue Jays Radio Network - says the youthful 2011 Blue Jays are still an unknown quantity in the American League East.

"They have everything but blazing speed. I'll be curious to see where the offence is going to go under [new manager]John Farrell," Zaun says. "He might say, 'Go get 'em.' That was certainly [former manager Cito Gaston's] philosophy. He's been a pitching coach, so it'll be interesting what philosophy of offence he takes. The pitching philosophy that we had when I was here is likely to stay same under Bruce Walton. They're going to be interesting."

Play Ball

The 2011 season is crucial for the Blue Jays, who are wearing out the patience of fans with permanent rebuilding strategies in the daunting AL East. It's also crucial for the new management team at Sportsnet, which has invested heavily in the TV and radio product of the team (owned by its parent Rogers Communications Inc.).

With a possible broadcasting void due to the NFL lockout and another in the NBA, there is a opportunity to drive eyeballs back to baseball. But another mediocre - or worse, boring season - could leave baseball a fringe sport nationally and a pleasant diversion in Southern Ontario.

While baseball still has a strong core audience (and a thriving digital presence), there has been little growth beyond the white urban base in Canada and the United States in the past decade. It's seen as the sport of Bob Costas or Ken Burns, a business that has no new markets to capture on the continent.

In particular, black culture - which drives youth trends in North America - has abandoned baseball. The celebrity music and film culture that embraces the NFL and NBA wouldn't be caught dead at a baseball game.

A lack of marketable stars, the hangover from the steroid era and the diminution of the small market are also hanging over baseball's head. For a growth business, that's a scary proposition. Unless the sport gets some star power outside its northeastern U.S. corridor, Rogers has to hope its baseball audience doesn't grow old and die on it.

Cleaned-up Rose

Last Monday, TSN broadcast the controversial ESPN documentary on University of Michigan's Fab Five - the celebrated college basketball quintet led by Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose in the early 1990s that popularized baggy pants, shaved heads and black shoes.

The documentary (executive produced by Rose) featured all but Webber discussing in blunt terms their experiences as highly recruited and, ultimately, disappointing players at the top level of U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball.

Among the controversial elements were Rose's portrayal of Duke University players such as Grant Hill as "Uncle Toms" and a liberal use of the "n" word in reference to their treatment as black basketball rock stars. (Hill fired back in The New York Times with an editorial decrying the attack from Rose.)

Viewers of TSN's showing, however, saw a sanitized version of the documentary with the players use of the "n" word and other profanity excised from the version ESPN showed. Usual Suspects asked TSN why it tampered with the ESPN version instead of putting up a warning about language on its 8 p.m. (EDT) broadcast.

TSN spokesman Greg MacIsaac reports: "TSN's broadcast of The Fab Five had minimal audio edits from the original ESPN broadcast. The words bleeped [with a sound effect]were made by ESPN. TSN only made five additional audio erases to words that are not suitable for TSN broadcasts.

"The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has established a 9 p.m. 'watershed' hour - after which programming geared to mature audiences may be broadcast."

Which begs the question why it was not shown at the later hour so that the racial context of the players' remarks was not altered.

Tiger burning bright

Golf Digest famously punted Tiger Woods as a playing editor for his indiscretions last year. (Beats us what they were.) Now, GD has featured a beatific looking Woods on its April cover as a Masters preview.

Needless to say, subscribers were surprised/appalled angry at the resurrection job.

"His upwards-looking, ear-to-ear smiling visage only required you to airbrush an encircling halo to complete your unabashed, drooling, institutionalized worship of a great golfer but an utterly pathetic father, husband, and role model to millions," one reader wrote.

GD editors insist the call was proper. "What we've learned about Tiger, we think, ought to make us less apt to judge him on a perfectionist-ic scale, and more likely to see a human being, not an icon, who is one of the best ever to play our sport."

That's their story and they're sticking with it.

Signing off

Remember when band leader Guy Lombardo joked that when he goes he's taking New Year's Eve with him? You sort of get the same feeling after Tuesday's last broadcast of an Edmonton Oilers game by Rod Phillips.

All Phillips did was call five Stanley Cup wins by the Oilers from 1984-90. He also called another two Cup finals plus a passel of other unforgettable hockey games and players. Happy retirement, Rod, and fill yer' boots.

 

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