Dan Shulman will begin his seventh season as the play-by-play announcer for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball telecasts beginning tonight when the Chicago Cubs begin their World Series title defense in St. Louis against the Cardinals. But this will be the first year during his tenure when Shulman will be working with the same broadcast team as the season before.
Analysts Aaron Boone and Jessica Mendoza and reporter Buster Olney all return with Shulman for the 2017 season. Awful Announcing spoke with Shulman and producer Phil Orlins to preview the SNB schedule, and both were very excited about the telecast’s continuity as they previewed the opening game and the season’s slate of games.
“It’s kind of like riding a bike, when you’ve already done it together for a year,” Shulman told Awful Announcing. “You kind of just roll right into the season more easily.”
“We’re happy with how they’ve progressed,” Orlins said of SNB’s quartet. “We’re certainly happy with the camaraderie and everything with development.”
A major part of that development last season was the first year of broadcasting for Mendoza, who Shulman referred to as “a pioneer.”
“I thought she did great,” Shulman said. “She works as hard as anyone I know. Her enthusiasm is infectious. She asks questions. She’ll always ask questions. She’s not afraid to admit ‘hey, I’m not familiar with this’ or ‘I’d like to know more about that.’ And she’s terrific at interacting with the players.”
Shulman equated tonight’s Cubs-Cardinals game as the first chapter in a book, setting up the season after the Cubs’ first world championship in 108 years and catching the viewer up on what’s happened over the offseason to these two teams along with what transpired in the overall baseball landscape.
“We’re not going to assume everyone knows everything that’s happened the last five months,” Shulman said.
In this particular game, the world champs play their archrivals without center fielder Dexter Fowler, who signed with St. Louis over the winter.
“Opening day is as exciting to me every single year as it was when I was a little kid,” Shulman said, “but I’m really looking forward to this game.”
Looking beyond tonight, a major addition to the Sunday night broadcasts will be the gradual integration of win probability numbers into games, “and eventually a fairly constant element to our scoreboard,” Orlins said. He cited the growth and awareness of win probability based on this year’s NCAA tournament, the incredible Super Bowl comeback, the presidential election and FiveThirtyEight polling numbers.
“There’s something very compelling seeing that move in real time,” Orlins said.
Another compelling component for Sunday Night Baseball not going away anytime soon is the K Zone, something that Orlins said helps differentiate the ESPN games from other local and national outfits.
“The feedback I get from it across the board from Major League Baseball, internally at ESPN and young viewers is largely positive, really almost everywhere.”
Orlins said that he doesn’t lose a lot of sleep over there being negative feedback, on Twitter or otherwise, regarding K Zone.
“That’s just part and parcel to presenting something that’s differentiated,” he said. “We’re real happy with where it is.”
After staging a primetime broadcast at Fort Bragg last year, Sunday Night Baseball will head to historic Williamsport, Pennsylvania on Aug. 20 to broadcast a Cardinals-Pirates game during the Little League World Series.
Shulman is hopeful that the broadcast will be able to incorporate synergy between the major league players and the little leaguers participating from all over the world.
“I would love to get Major League players on camera talking to them about their memories of Little League,” Shulman said. “I would like to draw a connection between playing baseball as we all did as a kid and making it to the Major Leagues. So I hope we have a strong connection between the kids and the big leaguers that weekend.”
The narrative at Williamsport game should be a slam dunk, but there will logistical challenges from a production standpoint. Orlins was at last year’s Little League World Series scouting out camera angles and locations, and said that staging this game will be even tougher than the Fort Bragg game, where a ballpark was literally built from scratch for the occasion.
There are stanchions and pillars “blocking most of the conventional viewpoints, and even the typical high home viewpoint that you’d shoot a game from,” Orlins said. “The highest seats in the ballpark are probably 20 feet high. So we’re going to end up doing a lot of robotic cameras to get us to the positions where you’re high enough to actually see the field pretty well. So that’s going to be a good challenge, a fun challenge.”
In addition to the Williamsport remote, ESPN will be bringing back its Sunday From The Seats feature, where the broadcasters will call the game from the seats rather than the actual announce booth. That’ll happen on May 21 for Texas at Detroit, May 28 when the Mets visit the Pirates and the Cardinals-Cubs games from Wrigley Field on June 4.
Orlins also said that a Chicago-themed Monday From The Seats will happen at Wrigley on July 24 with former Cubs Rick Sutcliffe, Doug Glanville and David Ross calling the game with Jason Benetti. ESPN will also be trying culturally themed broadcasts, according to Orlins. A May 30 game between San Francisco and Washington will focus on baseball and the African-Americans in this country, “more of a deeper dive into how baseball is managing amongst the African American community,” Orlins said. A Puerto Rican themed broadcast along those lines is also planned.
But as much as Shulman is looking forward to the entire season, he’s especially stoked for tonight’s game.
“It’s always great to be able to see the World Series Champions on opening night,” Shulman said, “and to get a chance to see them against their archrivals in St. Louis, it’s pretty special.”