ESPN’s disappearing baseball voices past and present have left the network’s coverage barren.

The MLB playoffs are here, but watching Get Up and First Take, both staples of ESPN’s morning programming, you’d never know it.

Wednesday was more of the same with host Mike Greenberg doing the honors, recapping the previous day’s Wild Card matchups in a rapid-fire highlight segment. Short as it was, the 90-second detour appeared to be all Greenberg could handle, butchering the last name of Phillies slugger Nick Castellanos (pronounced Cast-ee-YAH-nos). He also side-swiped the Rays for their low attendance, quipping that Tuesday’s series opener at Tropicana Field was limited to “friends and family.” In lieu of actual analysis, the five-person panel comprised of Greenberg, Kimberley Martin, Marcus Spears, Domonique Foxworth and Jeff Saturday—the latter three combining for 30 years of NFL experience—went for the low-hanging fruit, mocking a shirtless Phillies fan like roasters on a Comedy Central dais.

Unfortunately, snubs like these are par for the course as baseball comes to grips with its new identity as a regional sport largely ignored by the mainstream media. The irony, of course, is that ESPN owns the exclusive rights to MLB’s Wild Card Round, and will for the foreseeable future.

You can’t fault ESPN for playing to its strengths. Football pays the bills and, as industry tastemakers, ESPN has an obligation to indulge its audience in what has become our national obsession. But shelling out $560 million annually for MLB broadcast rights, only to bury it on the C block along with other stale storylines like James Harden’s trade request and the Giants laying an egg on Monday Night Football, is malpractice, representing a baffling allocation of resources for a vulnerable company already struggling to make ends meet.

Consider it a consequence of building a network around Stephen A. Smith, whose recent baseball takes have aged like soft serve, exposing his glaring lack of expertise with laughable hypotheses on everything from Shohei Ohtani (“I don’t want to hear any more discussions about him getting half a billion dollars”) to his beloved New York Yankees. Rather than insult our intelligence by having Stephen A. feign interest in a sport he doesn’t watch or even remotely care about, ESPN ceded the floor to commissioner Rob Manfred, who appeared as a guest on Wednesday’s First Take, covering the liner notes by entertaining questions on pace of play, rising payrolls, diversity and robot umps, among other surface-level inquiries from Smith and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo. Only two players were mentioned by name—likely National League MVP Ronald Acuña and Marlins breakout star Jake Burger.

Like the high-school crush that ignores you in Calculus but still likes all your Instagram posts, ESPN is sending mixed signals. Clearly, the suits in Bristol want ESPN to have a baseball presence, but what’s the point in giving us the Cliffs Notes version, previewing Sunday’s much-anticipated 49ers/Cowboys showdown (which airs on NBC) while devoting barely a minute of its two-hour runtime to Wild Card coverage?

Even as MLB positions itself as a sport on the come-up, reporting its highest attendance in years, baseball’s cultural relevance continues to wane, relegated to third-wheel status as a niche outpost confined to the margins of a saturated entertainment landscape.

Propping up football at the expense of baseball is no crime. If anything, it’s the new normal in sports media, standard operating procedure for an industry that, for all its blind spots, knows where its bread is buttered (hence ESPN rolling out the red carpet for Pat McAfee). Football is a proven cash cow, an undeniable juggernaut that functions as its own economy. Still, ESPN is no mom-and-pop shop. Surely, the worldwide leader has enough resources and influence to hire someone, anyone, with a background in baseball or, at the bare minimum, a working knowledge of the game once referred to as America’s pastime. Instead, Get Up and First Take remain overpopulated with NBA and NFL alums who instinctively steer the conversation back to their respective sports, unqualified to discuss baseball in any meaningful capacity.

At a certain point, you have to feel bad for baseball, trying and failing, through no fault of its own, to win the respect and admiration of an aloof father, pining for love and attention it will never receive. Bandwidth can’t be discounted as a mitigating factor. Greenberg and Smith, who double as radio and podcast hosts respectively, are stretched thinner than ham slices at your neighborhood deli, balancing their on-air responsibilities with other ventures that require them to pick and choose what content they consume on a daily basis. Inevitably, baseball gets left on the shelf, the odd man out that couldn’t quite make it into the shopping cart, losing out to narrative threads like Travis Kelce’s dating life or Deion Sanders’ latest feud.

By narrowing their focus to bread-winner sports like football and basketball, Greenberg and Smith have drifted further away from baseball, ill-equipped to competently discuss a game that has clearly passed them by. With that being the case, would it kill ESPN to pull up a chair for Jeff Passan or, God forbid, share a Zoom link with the criminally underused Tim Kurkjian, lending an element of credibility to an ensemble cast that would rather play the hits than cram for the big test?

ESPN’s on-air roster is well-stocked with ex-athletes, counting Dan Orlovsky, Ryan Clark, Robert Griffin III, Richard Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins and JJ Redick among its stable of former NFL and NBA stars. But ask yourself this—when was the last time ESPN produced a truly impactful baseball voice? It’s been forever and then some, a frustrating dry spell that speaks to ESPN’s tunnel vision, letting analytics steer the ship (as colleague Ben Koo alluded to in Thursday’s column) by defaulting to around-the-clock football and hoops coverage.

What’s so infuriating is that ESPN used to be a breeding ground for baseball talent, an incubator producing household names like Steve Berthiaume, Jayson Stark, John Kruk, Brian Kenny, Orel Hershiser, Adnan Virk and Rick Sutcliffe. Which begs the question, where did they all go? Regardless of where they disappeared to (most were poached by competitors), ESPN never bothered to replace them, failing to develop new personalities while squandering the ones they had, reducing veteran reporter Buster Olney to moving scenery.

Cognizant of its precarious position as a sport in crisis, MLB has heard your complaints, making sincere efforts to improve its product, hoping to attract a younger audience with shorter games, higher scoring and a viral presence on social media. ESPN is a known brand and one of the few platforms big enough to truly grow the game. However, what could be a fruitful relationship continues to be undermined by ESPN’s reluctance to step out of its comfort zone, treating MLB not as a partner, but as filler content to get through the lean summer months, finger foods offered as appetizers before the main course.

You might need prescription lenses to see it, but, truthfully, the writing’s been on the wall for years with ESPN making a conscious effort to distance itself from MLB, broadcasting fewer games (only Sunday nights with the exception of Opening Day and this week’s Wild Card slate) while dramatically scaling back Baseball Tonight, a fan favorite once considered the gold standard for MLB studio shows. With streamers like Apple and Peacock expanding their broadcast horizons, circling the live-event space like hawks, it wouldn’t be a surprise if ESPN soon punted on baseball altogether, declining to renew its rights deal with MLB when it expires in 2029.

Fans of Parks and Recreation might remember Ron Swanson’s blunt advice to Leslie Knope when she ran for City Council: “Never half-ass two things. Whole ass-one thing.” Faced with industry-wide turmoil in a rapidly evolving medium, ESPN has had to identify its profit center (live broadcasts with a particular emphasis on football and basketball), streamlining its approach after years of having a relative monopoly on sports programming. Like others in the content arms race, ESPN has had to pick its battles, which, unfortunately, has resulted in silencing baseball to a mere whisper, the television equivalent of a parent shushing a precocious toddler.

Is baseball hurt by the Red Sox and Yankees, legacy franchises representing two of the league’s biggest media markets, not making the postseason? Absolutely. Nor does it help that playoff games are being contested at three and four in the afternoon, when most of the country is either behind a desk or in rush-hour gridlock on the way home from work.

Maybe we’re to blame as consumers, complicit in perpetuating the lazy stereotype that baseball is boring and outdated, an acquired taste detested by millennials who would rather stare at a screen than experience the tradition of cultural landmarks like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Still, it shouldn’t be this painful to talk about a sport with so much history, minimizing the stakes and high drama of postseason baseball.

Football has undoubtedly surpassed baseball—by a rather colossal margin—in our national consciousness, but certainly MLB deserves better than its placement as a footnote on debate shows that barely acknowledge it.

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.