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U.S. President Barack Obama embraces St. Louis Cardinals baseball player Albert Pujols after Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the start of Major League Baseball's All-Star game in St. Louis, July 14, 2009. (POOL)
U.S. President Barack Obama embraces St. Louis Cardinals baseball player Albert Pujols after Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the start of Major League Baseball's All-Star game in St. Louis, July 14, 2009. (POOL)

Bruce Dowbiggin

Obama outshines All-Stars Add to ...

Sheryl Crow sang the national anthem (haven't the troops suffered enough?), but there was only one All Star Tuesday night, and he was wearing a White Sox jacket.

It was the other king of the ballot box, President Barack Obama, and the charismatic president blew them all out of the tub. Nothing suits Obama better than a big stage, and while the economy roils and he super sizes the federal budget, the Prez owned the room in St. Louis when he jogged out to the mound in his White Sox jacket to throw the ceremonial first pitch.

Later, Fox announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were positively moist when discussing Obama's visit to the American League dressing room.

"[Ichiro Suzuki's]was the best expression in the clubhouse. Delighted, sheer delight. Like a 12-year-old."

When Obama handed him a signed baseball it was with a "Here you go, Hall of Famer" to Ichiro.

Obama then joined the Fox boys in the booth.

"What an honour," gushed Buck. "Well it is," replied the modest Pale Hose president.

Wassup' with the jacket, asked Buck. "My wife thinks I look cute in this jacket," Obama replied. Asked about a bailout plan for the hapless National League, Mr. Smooth responded, "We're out of money." And with that Obama left the booth, and the game suddenly didn't matter any more.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

The elephant was in the room as the home runs flew Monday in the Home Run Derby. Even as ESPN's Chris Berman fawned over the blasts of Nelson Cruz, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, many other media were doing the hokey-pokey about what they saw. Having been burned by Alex Rodriguez's innocent act on steroids, the press had one foot in and one foot out about Pujols, the almost-perfect slugger of the Cardinals. To say nothing of Cruz, who a few years back was a journeyman with mediocre power before 2008.

Pujols made his protestations. "Just because Manny made a mistake, now I have to pay? Just because A-Rod made a mistake, now I have to pay?" he asked.

Baseball people want to give them the benefit of the doubt. "We've all became more educated," Buck told ESPN. "And because Albert's become as good as he is, he naturally gets the questions 'You must be taking something illegal'. And he's been very emphatic and said 'I'm not' … I take him at his word."

Added Buck's broadcast partner McCarver, "How fair is it if there's no proof? If there's no proof then it's case closed. Period."

But talking heads on shows from Pardon the Interruption to Around The Horn to Prime Time Sports showed a healthy dose of skepticism. Little wonder. In the new world of baseball, repudiation is just a test tube away.

Bush League

Was it the Home Run Derby or the Product-Placement Sweepstakes on Monday night? Every cranny of Bush Stadium in St. Louis was lacquered in signage - from a Big Mac Land home-run perch to State Farm Party Porch to Mastercard "Hit It Here" targets in the bleachers. And let's not forget Holiday Inn placards, Boeing boards and a Budweiser sign big enough to announce the Apocalypse. Just in case you wondered who has the energy-drink rights to the All-Star Game, batters were handed towels spangled with Gatorade logos and a bottle of the sweet stuff after their turn at bat.

And when the voluble Berman of ESPN wasn't talking over his co-hosts and guests, he was providing a verbal GPS of the park. "This one may be over Big Mac Land," he barked cheerfully as yet another bomb left the park.

The good side? Almost all the sponsors getting in your face are increasing their charitable contributions in this recession-racked year. Even the gold baseballs players belted were sponsored by State Farm which donated $17,000 to the Boys and Girls Clubs for each one hit for a home run during the derby.

No Go

Usual Suspects has learned the NHL has shelved plans for a special re-launch of its 2009-10 season in the first week of March, following the Vancouver Olympics.

The centrepiece was to be a game featuring Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Capitals in Washington. The concept was to capitalize on the profile hockey will gain in the United States from the Vancouver Games by featuring Crosby and Ovechkin, the NHL's top two TV attractions, in a special venue in the U.S. capital - possibly the National Mall.

According to sources with knowledge of the plans, details were discussed during meetings at the NHL draft last month, but there was not enough time to pull all the elements together. In particular, NBC was reluctant to commit to the time after putting its main schedule on hiatus for the 16-day Olympic break. Instead, when it announces the 2009- 10 schedule Wednesday, the NHL will concentrate on its now-traditional New Year's Day Winter Classic set for Fenway Park in Boston and the Montreal Canadiens/Capitals spectacular at Olympic Stadium in Montreal on Nov. 28.

Full Contract Hockey

Speaking of NBC, the network's new two-year extension with the NHL was announced on Wednesday during the NHL ceremonies at Fenway Park for the Winter Classic. As reported first by Usual Suspects, NBC will once again get the NHL's rights at no cost and will split revenues with the NHL after taking out its production costs. It's not an ideal situation, but with no other conventional network bidding for hockey it at least gives the NHL some presence for its playoffs and special games.

After Chicago owner Rocky Wirtz's criticism this April over the lack of an ESPN presence for the NHL, the league is attempting to have all its non-Canadian broadcast contracts up for renewal at the same time in two years. So the rights held by NBC, Versus and Fox regional networks will all become available in 2012 - possibly for one buyer. That would allow the NHL to sell all its worldwide rights to its broadcasts and other platforms at the same time, exercising leverage to maximize the returns. It would also seek to extend the footprint of its own NHL Network.

According to sources, NHL COO John Collins has been instrumental in helping guide the league to a more coherent broadcast strategy since his hiring in 2006. Collins began with NFL Films before becoming Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales in his 15-year stint at the league. He was briefly president and CEO of the Cleveland Browns before moving to the NHL. Collins was credited with helping create the NFL Network and the NFL's season-opening Kickoff festival.

Down The YouTubes

Finally, if you can't beat 'em, YouTube 'em. ESPN has created its own dedicated channel on YouTube. The ESPN Video Player - it began Monday - will have SportsCenter capsules of top sports stories plus clips from Outside the Lines , Pardon the Interruption , Mayne Street and Around the Horn . The upside for ESPN? They've signed up advertisers such as Under Armour and LG Electronics USA as dedicated sponsors on the site.

 

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