ESPN's 'Baseball Tonight' crew has fun working hard

Published: March 25, 2002 in the Orlando Sentinel

ESPN's Peter Gammons has the perfect solution for Major League Baseball's regular-season troubles in Florida: Build a domed stadium to house a major-league team near the intersection of interstates 4 and 75.

We'll come back to that issue because right now the white-haired Gammons is standing in a fake shower scene, wearing a towel across his waist, sandals and nothing else.

Not exactly something you see every day.

He's not the only one, either. Colleague Dave Campbell and several extras stand side-by-side, wearing the same "uniform" as steam dances around their heads. A few feet away, two men clad in blue coats face the group. One is a guy with a beer belly, yelling and jumping around as if a pack of wild dogs had control of his arms and legs, and the other is standing with his arms crossed.

Baseball's regular season starts Sunday, and before it ends, you're likely to see this scene, though the half-hour or so of action will take maybe four or five seconds on TV. As the famous line from "Blazing Saddles" goes, what in the wild, wild world of sports is going on here?

It's simple, really: ESPN's Baseball Tonight crew, led by "coaches" Karl Ravech and Harold Reynolds, is spending a couple of days before the season starts at a Universal Studios Florida sound stage, filming a series of promos for the show.

In this particular spot, Reynolds, who's wearing a fake beer gut, portrays Manager Joe "Skip" Riggins from the movie "Bull Durham" as he berates his team coming out of the showers.

"OK, Harold, a little more flamboyant. You want to look like you're mocking the team," are the instructions from director Tim Abshire.

Reynolds yells, "You're lollygagging in and out of the dugout!" in a seemingly more flamboyant fashion.

"That's good. Now don't go quite so wild on the accent," Abshire says.

Reynolds again performs his part. Again the director wants something slightly different.

This sequence repeats a number of times before the crew finally breaks a half-hour for lunch.

"Well, you have to be patient, that's for sure," Reynolds says with a laugh. "You have to break things down in these very small movements, and get everything just right. It's kind of like a golf swing.

"This is work. Doing Baseball Tonight is fun."

ESPN's popular ads, which parody scenes from well-known baseball movies, have taken on a life of their own.

"I hear more about the commercials than I do for anything else," Ravech said with his trademark grin. "Actually, when you stop and think about it, `I'm doing this show five nights a week and they only remember the ad,' you kind of wonder. But if it gets attention to the program and gets people thinking about it, I'm all for it."


Gammons, who is certain to garner some second looks by appearing shirtless this season, also played a key role in the most memorable of all the show's ads. At the end of another scene from "Bull Durham," the camera panned to Gammons -- dressed as Susan Sarandon's character, complete with a makeup and a hat.

"I had no idea that was him," Ravech says from across a crowded makeup room. "I wasn't there during the shoot, and they did a great job."

Gammons quietly chuckles.

"That was not my favorite idea," he says, a growing smile complementing his white hair, set with spray to appear wet and messy for the shoot. "It was a great commercial, though. I think the shock value of that shot is what made it so great.

"I took a lot of heat for playing Susan Sarandon."

Now laughing, he adds, "And I made probably the ugliest-looking woman in the world."

Reynolds and Ravech snicker over that, and as the three begin walking back to the sound stage to continue filming, their conversation takes more funny turns than a Kerry Wood slider.

That easy-going nature translates on screen and is a big part of what makes Baseball Tonight fun to watch. Ravech hosts the show five nights a week, with Gammons, Reynolds and Campbell all making at least a couple of appearances on the show every week.

While the Baseball Tonight crew strives to keep things fun, a lot of work goes into making it look that way. For instance, Ravech says his typical day starts at 4 p.m. and doesn't end until 1 a.m. or whenever the last game of the night -- which may not come until 2:30 or later.

Ravech and Co. spend only a couple of hours on the air each night, with their shows at 10 p.m. and midnight, usually spending the rest of their time either watching games or working the phones, calling players and management. And that doesn't include all the phone calls, reading or writing he does during his off days to stay on top of the game. Or trying to keep pace with his two young sons.

Clearly, this is a labor of love.

"Let's just say I take a lot of naps," Ravech said. "But the best thing is you don't know what's going to happen in a particular day. If it was the same show five nights a week, I wouldn't do it. No way."


Gammons now dons a light yellow collared shirt as he walks into the set, which has gone from sauna conditions to a meat locker in about 15 minutes, to grab a cookie off the table of food set up for the cast. While the longtime baseball writer-turned-ESPN personality may have his own bobblehead doll and seem easy-going, know this: Few, if any, others on the planet have the depth of knowledge or love of baseball that he does.

Gammons lives near Cape Cod and has season tickets for the Boston Red Sox ("right behind the screen behind home plate," he says with childlike excitement) and watches numerous Cape Cod League games during the summer.

As he talks about how he misses covering spring training as a writer, he rattles off several names of major-leaguers who had ties to Orlando, all while checking his cell phone and pager for any updates on big-league players.

Now, about that dome previously mentioned ...

"All the years I spent in Winter Haven in the spring, I think in '83 or '84, I thought what a great thing it would be to have a stadium at the intersections of 75 and 4," Gammons says between phone messages. "Then you'd have easy access from Orlando, St. Pete, Tampa, Gainesville, really a big area of population nearby. I think it would work very well."

Suddenly, the air conditioner shuts off and steam begins to waft into the room. Abshire and his filming crew have set up and call for Gammons to take off his shirt and return to the shower scene.

Meanwhile, Reynolds and Ravech sit back, away from the set, cracking jokes with each other and poking fun of Campbell's non-throwing arm ("That right arm's a gun, but the left arm is more like a 4-year-old's!") and Gammons' lack of a tan.

Gammons says he hopes the show comes across like three or four guys just talking baseball.

On this day, the only thing missing was the beer.