When MLB decided that it would launch its own network channel on cable, they were savvy enough to make its distribution part of the MLB Extra Innings package that very nearly became a monopoly of DirecTV. With a broader distribution deal through the likes of the iN Demand cable consortium, when launched on Jan. 1 this year, it became the largest cable channel launch in history reaching approximately 50 million households.
With a channel dedicated 24/7/365 to baseball, it has required an ever growing stable of on-air talent to fill out programming. In early November last year, MLB Network announced their first studio host to begin the process of filling out their roster. Their selection was Matt Vasgersian, who had been the Padres play-by-play announcer. Prior to the Padres, Vasgersian had held the play-by-play duties for the Brewers, had been a member of NBC’s 2008 Olympic coverage, was part of FOX NFL telecasts, teaming with J.C. Pearson, and was the lead broadcaster for the ill-fated XFL.
Vasgersian has been a regular staple on MLB Tonight, MLB Network’s premier live studio show. As the profile of sports studio hosts have changed from straight reporter to comedic, and sometimes edgy personalities, Vasgersian has fit the mold, although sometimes with commentary that some have said crosses the line.
During a late April broadcast of MLB Tonight, Vasgersian did a “look alike” reference involving footage of Colorado Rockies outfielder Brad Hawpe's neck injury. Hawpe was taken to a hospital with a possible concussion after he was hit in the neck by San Diego catcher Nick Hundley's throw to second. Vasgersian asked the production team to reshow the footage of Hawpe being carted off the field in a neck brace. Referencing a member of the Rockies EMT staff, Vasgersian quiped, “Isn’t that Donavan McNabb?”
The next day, the footage became a YouTube sensation, and became highly talked of across the blogsphere. The next day, Vasgersian apologized on several websites, including here at The Biz of Baseball (see his apology in the comments here). That evening, he apologized to the broadcast team and the fans.
We caught up with Vasgersian this past Friday to talk about MLB Network, the 2009 season, and ask him about the on-air McNabb gaff. The interview changed decidedly when it was announced on Thursday that Dodgers leftfielder Manny Ramirez had been suspended 50 games for being in violation of MLB’s drug policy. And while all questions were baseball related leading up to the interview, when we found out that Vasgersian once did reviews for Rolling Stone, we had to end on a lighter note and ask, “What’s on your iPod?”
Select Read More to see the interview with MLB Network’s Matt Vasgersian
Maury Brown for the Business of Sports Network: This interview was decidedly different before yesterday, but with the news that Manny Ramirez has been suspended 50 games for being in violation of baseball’s drug policy, baseball is dealing with another dark moment. What were your thoughts when you first heard the news?
Matt Vasgersian: The initial guttural reaction was, “Wow, that’s big.” And then after no more than a couple of minutes you say, “Why should we be surprised?” There’s not a single player in baseball that if we learned that they failed a drug test that we’d be completely out-of-your-brain shocked. And then after a little more thought, as you try to put your own kind of perspective to it, it’s offensive. It’s offensive because when a Manny Ramirez should know better – my God, who doesn’t need to do this stuff – who has all the best advice that money can buy, after all; when you continue to do something that is expressly forbidden, it’s as if you’re flying in the face of the fans. It’s just a big middle finger extended to Major League Baseball and the fans. I mean, these guys can keep their denials going when microphones are on, they can assign blame to everything from a quack doctor to misreading a label to being deceived to complete ignorance to doing it for erectile dysfunction, which seems to be the sexy excuse now, and it’s all nonsense. We’re not that dumb – the fans aren’t that dumb. And, for them to keep flying these lies out there just means that they think we’re all idiots. And that’s what offends me the most. You know, put whatever you want in your body; cheat if you want to cheat, but don’t think that I don’t know.
Bizball: MLB Network’s roster has a considerable number of former players. What was their reaction to the news?
Vasgersian: I think that our reactions were all very similar. It wasn’t shock, that is too strong a word. It was surprise, initially, and then it was, you know, “Here’s another big name player that falls.” It’s unfortunate, but true that the way we are now – we’ve been doing this a while, not just because of Manny, but we say, “You’re a guy. You’re a guy. You’re a ‘roid guy. You’re a ‘roid guy.” All I need to do is flip over to the back of your baseball card and see just a couple of ridiculous years of power numbers spike, and then we look at your body, and here it gets back to the same thing, I’m not stupid…
Bizball: Not to interrupt, but Matt, I guess I feel like I’ve been short changed. It’s not that steroids bug me all that much, it’s that I can’t go to a game now and have to second guess whether some guy is on PEDs. Has it taken away some of the innocence of the game for you?
Vasgersian: Yes, it can. But, I look at it this way: the closer you get to anything, the more the bloom comes off the rose. And whether I’m working in Major League Baseball, or whether I was a rock and roll critic reviewing concerts and albums for Rolling Stone, the closer that I would get to my favorite artists, I would probably find myself, at times, being a little more disappointed, because you just learn more – that they’re all just people. And when you get that access, sometimes the information that you get with it isn’t the most flattering. So, baseball survives itself, I know that sounds cliché, but I’m not going to let it abate my love for baseball just because some guy is using ‘roids in the 1990s and 2000s. It isn’t going to take away my great memories of baseball when I was a kid, and I guess that’s why we’re all still involved in this game.
Bizball: With the suspension, what are your thoughts on his chances for entering the HOF once his career is over?
Vasgersian: That’s a great question, because I think we can say looking back on guys like Palmiero, and Sosa, and McGwire, they’re going to have a tough time getting into the building. The two real unsettled cases now in my mind are going to be Clemens, because I don’t think you can say with certainty that he’s not going to get in – he had cultivated so much good will that writers prior to his foibles – and then Manny. While Manny probably isn’t the hero he was in Boston, his profile in baseball, although it’s kind of the knucklehead thing sometimes, the whole Manny being Manny thing is endearing to a lot of people. It is hard to argue with his numbers, and I don’t know that a lot of voters will bother to scratch at this positive test. Things that we’ve heard bantered around the building these last couple days are that he’s been on and off this stuff for quite a while. And again, that shouldn’t surprise anybody. That’s all rumor and speculation, which leads to the question, “Did the guy do one cycle and then get off of it?” That’s unlikely, especially when he’s using stuff like this female fertility drug, which according to what we’ve learned now, is part of a habitual user’s ritual.
Bizball: Deviling into how working at MLB Network’s studio is like, is the atmosphere different on a day when news such as the Ramirez suspension or A-Rod admission that he used steroids happens?
Vasgersian: Man is it ever. And I lead the charge, because I am a sourpuss on days like yesterday. None of us like doing this stuff, none of us. We go from reporting on games and competition and brief stats in the context of the game, which we all love. And, we go from that to being a news agency, which stinks... I mean, the day of A-Rod thing I let everybody know that I’m no Ted Koppel. I struggle with the breaking news stuff, especially when it's news like A-Rod did steroids or Manny did steroids. We’re all aware that we don’t want to be the type of shop that just starts speculating on who else is out there; what does this mean? When you have the long format that you’ve seen on the cable dial for the last two decades, you can just talk yourself into a hole. I’ve done it. I think we’ve seen, not in terms of a steroids conversation, but it’s a lot of leash. When it’s something that makes you so bitter – something like steroids – you tend to kind of frown on the screen on hours at a time. I’m very self-aware that I don’t want to be doing that, but it’s hard to avoid.
Bizball: Shifting gears, you’re seeing the footage from the ballparks every night. Many times, we’re seeing empty seats behind home plate due to the cost of premium seats. How much do you feel the economy is impacting filing certain seats at the ballpark?
Vasgersian: Yeah, the economy is the easy thing to point to, but in a good economy or a bad economy, people come out when you win. And since attendance always tends to be a retroactive kind of thing, reflecting pervious years success or failure, you’re seeing certain ballparks real empty real early in the season, which is very disconcerting. It’s something that we’re all tempted to talk about on air, but we’re trying not to. We haven’t been given that edict but it’s striking when you watch a Yankee game, and you see how many seats are empty right behind the plate. Or in Cincinnati the other night there were a lot of empty seats, and in Pittsburgh. It’s easy to pile on cities like those, because they haven’t won in so long. We all want those cities in particular to succeed. There’s weather – there’s all these excuses – kids are still in school. I just think if a team wins, people will go. Look at the Royals. The Royals had nearly 33,000 people in the stands yesterday for a day game. They’re fun to watch, and people respond to that.
Bizball: It’s still fairly early in the season, but we’re seeing some surprises in the standings. The Royals and Blue Jays are sitting atop their Divisions while Yankees are 5.5 games out. When the season ends, which of the surprise teams at the beginning of the season do you think will be there at the end?
Vasgersian: I still like the Reds, although I wouldn’t call them in it right now. I still think maybe they’ve done themselves a favor by not getting out of the gates red hot like the Diamondbacks going 20-8 last April, and then the precipitous demise they had the rest of the season. I like the Reds. I don’t want to be too bandwagony right now, but it’s kind of hard not to like the Royals right now. They’ve got the best starting pitcher in baseball at this moment. Add Jacobs, and Crisp. You’ve got guys like Teahan and Buck, and the rest of that lineup that is kind of a year older and wiser. They’ve got the closer, they’ve got the shortstop; they’re good up the middle. I really like the Royals, and I think it would be a great thing for baseball if they were to resurrect themselves. There’s probably two entire generations of kids now who are younger than you and I, Maury, who know the Royals as being nothing but a cellar dweller; not remember the ‘70s and ‘80s and how they were just a perennial power in the A.L.
Bizball: Doing live television, which MLB Tonight is, can be a bit tricky. In late April, you compared a member of the Rockies' EMT staff to Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb while a clip was shown of Rockies rightfielder Brad Hawpe being taken off the field after being hit by a baseball in the back of the neck. You went on to apologize on the air the next day, as well as on some websites, The Biz of Baseball included (see Vasgersian’s apology in the comments here under the title, “Agree with all of the above”). Can you tell me what the reaction was from the producer after you were off-the-air? Did it slip by?
Vasgersian: No, it didn’t slip by, because I wasn’t going to let it slip by. I offered up my take on it as soon as we got off the air. The producers usually pop out of the control room right at the end of a three hour chunk, and you do that kind of immediate face-to-face, “Hey great show. Hey bad show. This went well and this went great.” As soon as we convened after that show I said, “You guys, I screwed you there by having you roll back that tape.” I apologized to them first, because they were unwittingly complicit in my failed joke. So I let them know that I made the mistake and I wasn’t pleased. I wasn’t about to just blow that off, because I knew as soon as I said it, it was very poorly timed. So I let them know that I would go on the offense and wasn’t going to let them take the bullet from anybody. I knew I was going to get a lot of grief for that, as I deserved.
Bizball: As mentioned, you went on the air, and posted apologies online. As far as the online part, was this something you felt you needed to go directly to the fans about? What was the impetuous to going online and making personal apologies to the fans directly?
Vasgersian: I felt like I needed to do that directly, because people who watch the show… I don’t want to put everyone in a box here, but we don’t necessarily have our hard core viewers with us every night. I think the internet drives so much of our content success, and as is the case with everything on TV, sports in particular, the internet is as big of portal for that product as watching it on your TV. So, most people who saw that didn’t see it on MLB Tonight, they saw it on You Tube. I think this is important too, I’ve been reminded of this often, even aside from this episode, I think that I have more of a blogger’s perspective than not. The internet users in the internet community – while some of them are a little out there – for the most part, are people that I feel I can relate to the best; people with perspective, people that probably enjoy a little humor. Obviously this was a failed attempt at that. I think it’s important not to be hypocritical here too. There are a lot of people who do what I do – analysts, play-by-plays, hosts – that have that kind of “screw the internet” mentality, like, “Screw the bloggers. They’re all losers. They sit at home on the computer. Get out. Get a job,” that kind of mentality, as well. If I were to feel like that, I’d be a total hypocrite, because I read the blogs; I enjoy them. That’s why I was sensitive to this, and why I felt I had to address it, because I’m a user and a member of that community. So, if I were to all of a sudden say, “Oh yeah, screw the blogs,” that would have been completely hypocritical, because within a week I’d be reading Biz of Baseball, I’d be reading Awful Announcing, I’d be reading Deadspin… Those are the first places that I went when I knew that I screwed up. I figured as a user in those communities online that I needed to address my own foibles.
Bizball: You were the first on-air talent that MLB Network announced as hiring. Since being a part of MLBN from a very early stage, how do you view the network in terms of what it offers fans, and what the future for MLB Network might be like in the future?
Vasgersian: I think that we’re going to look a lot different than we do now in subsequent years. Perhaps as early as next season. I think what we’ve been doing is great; I’ve really been pleased with it. But we’re not there yet. We’re not nailing it. We’ve had some initial success and I don’t think that any of us want to be convinced that we’ve become so good that we can keep plugging away on this current template; that would be a mistake. We all have our frustrating moments. From producers to announcers, feel like there are things that we can do differently and better. If left to my own devices, I would be a slave of old footage. I think it’s such a great resource that we share a building with MLB Productions, whose archives are vast. If we get into a discussion point on say, Willie Montañez, as we did the other day, we can produce a little Willie Montañez roll to pop on the air 20 minutes later after a commercial break. That is just awesome, I absolutely adore that, and its one of the things I enjoy most about play-by-play. If the Padres were playing the Cardinals, and it was an anniversary of a Stan Musial base hit, or if there was some cause to remember a Jose Oquendo double, we could try to get that footage and roll it in. We could do that until we’re blue in the face at the network, which I just love. There’s probably a lot of guys out there like you and I, who were the ones buying retro jerseys before they were cool. We were playing fantasy leagues as early as the mid to late ‘80s. I like to speak to guys like that, and I think we can do that on the network.
Bizball: Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this… You mentioned covering music for Rolling Stone. What is on Matt Vasgersian’s iPod playlist? Who are some of artists that you enjoy?
Vasgersian: I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to my musical taste. It’s not that I’m one of those guys that poo-poos everything post-1998 and says, “All I like his old stuff” because that’s untrue. I’m a huge Springsteen-file. To be working in New Jersey, the irony in that is not lost on me. I love “The Wrestler” because they shot it at Asbury Park and Springsteen wrote the theme song. Van Morrison is probably one of my favorite artists. I saw him do the Astral Weeks performance at the WaMu Theater. He performed it live here in New York City, which I thought was awesome. I’ll make a case that The Who was, and is, the greatest rock and roll band ever. I would make a multi-platformed argument with that case. I do enjoy a wider range of music than most in terms of Big Band, vocals, classical…. I listen to pretty much everything except for hardcore rap and techno. I guess I’d put a constant shuffle of Van Morrison, Springsteen, The Who and maybe Elvis Costello on my iPod and just let it play until I die.
- Interview conducted on Friday, May 8, 2009 by Maury Brown
- Interview transcribed by Nick Kappel
- Extra thanks to Kappel for assisting in the transcription process
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
Don't forget to register and log in on The Biz of Baseball site to get updates via your in-box, and see information only logged in members can see.
Subscribe to The Biz of Baseball, and follow the Business of Sports Network on Twitter