An Excellent Cardinal Adventure: Part I

Daniel ShoptawAnalyst ISeptember 18, 2010

Those were the words of the founder of Pitchers Hit Eighth somewhere in the midst of a whirlwind afternoon yesterday at Busch Stadium.  He found no one to disagree with him, as we were all trying to keep everything straight as we went from one incredible thing to another.

Instead of trying to cram all of that into one extensive post, let me try to make it a little more manageable.  Don't worry, there are pictures as well.

Let me set the stage.  A couple of years back, the press release that the United Cardinal Bloggers sent out in relation to their progressive game blog caught the eye of Geoff Goldman, Media Relations for Fox Sports Midwest.  He and I began a correspondence, talking about various things.  When FSMW started their live blog/chat last year, UCB members participated and then gave feedback, suggesting tweaks or changes.  Most recently, when FSMW did their "This One's For You" game, members of the UCB wrote posts to go along with that, which then were linked up on the FSMW website.

Earlier in the year, Geoff approached me with an offer for a few bloggers to get the behind-the-scenes look at the TV production.  We continued to talk about it through the year and finally settled on yesterday's date.  Completely by coincidence, the Cardinals came up with that date for their social media event.  (On Twitter with #CardsSMN, which I completely botched with my own #stlsmn version.  Hashtags and I have issues.)

Geoff told me that they'd like to keep it small, so two other bloggers besides myself could come.  Talk about painting me into a corner!  There's at least five times that many great bloggers that deserved the chance to go.  However, it seemed fair to offer it first two the top blogs that are in the Stalwart category of the Definitive Guide.

I'm sure Mike (Stan Musial's Stance, for those that don't know) and Nick (the aforementioned PH8) will have their own stories about how they reacted to that news and what they had to do to get there, but both of them were able to take me up on that offer.  Which is why, about four o'clock yesterday afternoon, we were looking at this sign:

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After confirming who we were, we were handed our press passes:

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And we walked in through the Media and VIP entrance into an experience that, I feel safe in speaking for the other two in saying, was beyond anything we had imagined.  Come through the doors as I try to give you a little taste of the experience, starting with the guys in the truck.

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Geoff informed us that there can be up to three trucks here.  One for the Cardinals, of course, sometimes one for the other team, and then if there is a national truck.  For example, a Wednesday night ESPN game might have all three trucks there.  If the other team is on another Fox Sports channel, they usually pool resources and the opposing team runs their feed through the Cardinals' truck as well.  As you can see on the truck, it has the letters HDX, meaning it's an HD truck.  One of the reasons it took until this year to get HD on every game was that there were not enough trucks out there to cover everything.  They don't pack up and head out on the road with this, at least not often.

The Padres had a truck there because they are on Cox (I believe) out in San Diego, not on a Fox Sports station.  When the Cards go out to San Diego, they rent a truck out there instead of trying to drive this one all the way out to the coast.

When you step inside, you are greeted with a spectacle.

TV truck 2.jpg
Screen after screen stares back at you.  All of the screens are labels with either location or what they are (replay, etc.)  This is really just half of it.  If you were to continue to your right, there's more on the other side where the other team sets up if it's a sharing situation.  It's completely incredible.

You see down at the bottom right corner is a monitor.  That is the dedicated computer for the Fox Box, keeping track of the outs, runs, runners, etc. that you see on your screen at home.

Tom and Mike in truck.jpg

Tom Mee (in cap) and Mike Helling are the guys running the show in the booth and both of them couldn't have been nicer in talking with us.  Tom's the director, while Mike's title is producer.  If you've watched either FSMW or KPLR, you've heard Tom's name mentioned quite often.  He's written a book on the subject of putting a game on air called Cutting the Game and you can check out his blog as well.

Tom and Mike obviously knew their stuff and they were great about giving us a feel for what goes on during a game.  As Tom said, they make literally thousands of decisions each night, deciding when to go to replays, when to get their "drop ins" (sponsor messages) in, everything like that.  They also said they leave instructions with their cameramen to "get something we've never seen before."  It obviously doesn't always happen, but they give their guys the freedom to be creative, follow the players around, watch the pitcher when he's given up a hit instead of the ball and the base runners, things of that nature.

If you see the big screen right above Tom's head in the above picture, that's what's live.  What goes on that screen is what you and I see at home.  So much goes into that, whether it is graphics (there were two guys working on graphics and getting things set while we were there, but some also get created during the game) or crowd shots or anything else.

One thing that I thought was pretty neat was how they do the super slo-mo replays.  They have one camera that records at three times normal speed, then they play it back at normal speed, which gives you the slow frame rate that really brings out the play.  They had the Brendan Ryan shot mentioned in this blog post cued up for us and ran it for us, and it was exquisite to see the ball moving so slowly that you could see the rotation on it.  Just beautiful.

Kevin Laney, the executive producer, joined us in the truck and pointed something out.  Nick asked what time they left after a game and Mike said usually, for them, they were out 20-30 minutes afterwards, while some people would stay getting shots and packages ready for the next night.  Kevin noted that, with modern technology, Mike will actually go home and be able to work on some of this stuff at home after the game, so even after coming in at one for a 7:15 start and leaving around 10:00, he'll still work on stuff at home.

Both Tom and Mike emphasized that the basis of their decisions is really answering the question, "What do the people at home want to see?"  Tom has been in St. Louis since 1988, Mike (save for a few years doing the Rockies) the same.  They know that there is a rabid fanbase out there that will watch these games even when the team slides out of it.  FSMW has the highest ratings of any network in baseball, which is great but also adds pressure to come out and perform on a day-to-day basis.

They also talked about the communication between themselves and the on-air people, whether it was the pregame crew or Dan McLaughlin and Al Hrabosky.  While they are often talking in their ear, either telling them what shots are coming up or (according to Jim Hayes in our next conversation) cracking a ton of jokes, the communication can go both ways.  Dan and Al can say to Mike and Tom, "Hey, can we get X" and they'll try to accommodate.  There seemed to be a camaraderie (though with a lot of good-natured back and forth) between "the guys in the truck" and the on-air talent.

Tom and Mike are together a ton, basically every day for six months.  (It sounded like Mike would occasionally be stolen away, as he's done some games for MLB Network.)  Mike actually lives in Colorado, so he's with Tom more than he's with his family for half a year.  As Tom said, you have to like each other.  He said there are some directors and producers in the game that don't care for each other (without naming specific ones, of course) and he thinks the broadcast suffers because of it.

Before we left, Tom gave each of us copies of Cutting The Game, which not only was awesome (especially since I had continually thought about buying one myself) but then became our ice-breaker with the rest of the interviews, because it never failed that the next subject would say, "Ah, see they got Cutting The Game.  They've been to see Tom!"  They invited us to come back during the game to see them in action, but because of the restrictions placed on us by MLB and the Cardinals, we weren't allowed to do that.  We had so much on our plate as it was, but new on my list of goals is to push to be able to do that next time.  I mean, if this guy can do it, why can't we?

After thanking Tom and Mike for all their time and information, we got out of the truck and talked with Geoff and Kevin about what we'd learned inside.  Kevin pointed out that Tom had actually started with the Minnesota Twins, and had done the last game in Sportsman's Park and the first game in the Metrodome with the Twins.  So it was a real treat for him to open up Target Field and be able to do the first game up there this year when the Cards played their exhibitions up in the new park.

There was so much that we talked about in the truck that I know I'm leaving some out and, being that Mike and Nick actually took notes (always knew they were just propping me up), I look forward to their posts to send you over there and fill in the blanks I left.

That was just the start of things, but that's enough on this post.  Next up, Jim Hayes and Pat Parris.  And that, my friends, was a hoot.  We'll get to that this weekend, if at all possible.


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