Matt Vasgersian, the voice of Sunday Night Baseball, wants to 'blow up' the baseball booth

Alex Reimer
August 05, 2018 - 11:33 am

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The Red Sox return to “Sunday Night Baseball” for the finale of their weekend massacre of the Yankees, where fans will have another opportunity to hear the refurbished broadcast booth for ESPN’s marquee baseball telecast. The WorldWide Leader has tried numerous gimmicks to liven up the presentation this season, such as placing the trio of Matt Vasgersian, Jess Mendoza and Alex Rodriguez in the stands and having them speak with mic’d up players –– when permitted. But if it were up to Vasgersian, who was added to the team this year along with A-Rod, they would go even further. “Sunday Night Baseball’s” new play-by-play man wants to blow things up.

“If I had the blank canvas, and there were no ramifications to how it was perceived, I would try to blow it up a little more,” Vasgersian told me on the phone recently. “There's still an expectation among the audience that it's supposed to sound a certain way. It's supposed to sound like it did in the 60's, 70's and 80's when play-by-play announcers were doing radio over the pictures. I certainly don't need to hear, as a viewer, for a game in September, a guy's height and weight, college draft class –– I don't need to hear that. Give me a layer of information I can't read out of the media guide. I think we'd all agree the industry has evolved from that.”

Vasgersian is a broadcast veteran, calling games for the Brewers in the late 1990s. He later moved to San Diego to serve as voice of the Padres before moving over to MLB Network, where he’s served as one of its primary studio hosts and play-by-play voices. 

While Vasgersian’s career trajectory is typical of most baseball play-by-play men, his eagerness to innovate differentiates him from the pact. He recognizes the staid nature of baseball game presentation, which explains his enthusiasm for working with A-Rod and Mendoza in the three-person Sunday night booth. Early this season, Vasgersian says their work was disastrous. But now, he says they’ve started to hit their stride.

“Since that first game, it’s definitely gotten better,” Vasgersian told me. “We like each other, and that goes a long way. We want it to be good for each other, and if I can shut up and give Alex an opportunity to say what he has to say, and vice-versa, we do it. It’s been fun in that regard. There are probably more booths than people understand where that’s not the case.”

A-Rod’s addition to the Sunday night mix was the big takeaway from ESPN’s offseason shakeup, as the polarizing all-time great impressed audiences during his postseason stints with FOX Sports. But Vasgersian makes a point to highlight Mendoza’s contributions to the broadcast. The Olympic gold medalist -– Mendoza was part of the gold medal-winning 2004 U.S. softball squad –– joined “Sunday Night Baseball” full-time in 2016, after Curt Schilling got canned for sharing a disparaging post about transgender bathroom usage on Facebook. 

The circumstances surrounding Mendoza’s addition to the Sunday night team made her ripe for criticism. For starters, Schilling, while he’s politically insane, is one of the sharpest baseball minds out there. The three-time World Series winner would often take the viewer inside the mind of the pitcher, which Mendoza can’t do. When it comes to game analysis, Mendoza can’t compete with Schill. Few can.

In addition, Mendoza, as the first national female baseball analyst, is seen as a symbol in some right-wing circles of ESPN’s shift towards promoting militant liberalism –– “MESPN,” all of that. But Vasgersian adamantly defends his colleague, saying Mendoza adds a journalistic element that’s missing from most broadcasts.

“Jess has this natural journalist's curiosity that takes her to places not many of us are willing to go. Example: she'll get a piece of information at the ballpark on Saturday regarding what a starting pitcher may have done in college that helped get him to the next level. She'll think about it for a sec, understand she has a connection to that college coach through somebody, she'll make the calls necessary to connect to that college coach before the game, talk to him about it, and bring it on the air,” he explains. “That’s not uncommon for a good baseball writer to do, but Jess as a game analyst is willing to put in those extra hours and leverage those personal connections to get information that nobody else has.”

When asked for a specific example, Vasgersian harkens back to Opening Day, when little-known left-hander Ty Blach took the hill for the Giants. Mendoza called Blach’s college coach at Creighton, and he proceeded to talk about Blach’s pace and habit of not turning his back to the catcher when he’s on the mound. She brings that kind of information to the telecast, which Vasgersian says greatly augments the viewing experience. 

But still, the greatest difference between this year’s Sunday night booth and its previous incarnations is the apparent emphasis on conversation and lightness. It’s not a traditional-sounding telecast. 

Those changes haven’t resulted in a ratings boon, however. Sunday night ratings are down eight-percent compared to last year, with four rain delays likely contributing to that. Vasgersian says he can’t help but fret over the numbers, even though he knows the metric is flawed.

“I'd be lying if I didn't tell you I didn't take it a little personally. You can't help but do that,” he said. “However, as I've been informed, the way ratings are generated for this particular discussion, is that they'll take Week 8 from 2017 on 'Sunday Night Baseball,' and you compare it to the same week this year, and that's your plus-minus. So if Week 8 last year was Red Sox-Yankees, and the Yankees had been in the midst of a 14-game winning streak, you're going to have a much better number than if Week  8 this year was anything else. So it doesn't make a lot of sense.”

The ratings conversation speaks to the challenge of promoting a national baseball telecast in 2018. Baseball is a regional sport, and unlike the NBA, its stars don’t have widespread national appeal. That’s why Vasgerisan is so high on the idea of mic’ing players and trying to promote personalities, even though the players’ association is skeptical of the idea. 

“That's got to happen, man,” Vasgersian said. “We’ve got to see it, we've got to hear you. The NBA does it, and I'm lead to believe they do it a little easier than happens in our game.”

The Noah Syndergaard viral video is a great example of the tug-and-pull going on right now. In June, video leaked of Snydergaard’s ejection from the 2015 NLDS, during the same game when Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley took out Mets infielder Ruben Tejada with his cleats-up slide. The clip provided a rare inside look at how ejections are handled, giving fans unprecedented access. 

But MLB worked to remove the clip from the Internet. Vasgersian says that kind of thinking can’t last if baseball wants to increase its popularity. In his mind, the game should be trying to experiment at all costs.

“I don't think there are many bad ideas,” he told me. “Let’s put it that way.”

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