Many years ago, you might remember, Atlanta Braves All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman played in a spring training game with a Hall of Fame third baseman chirping in his ear as he tried to guess which pitch was going to be a fastball.
Chipper Jones, the Atlanta legend, was in the ESPN broadcast booth, along with the regular ESPN broadcast crew, and the banter between Freeman — who was mic’d up for the game — and the folks in the booth was great entertainment.
The best part, though? Freeman was on first base with two outs when a pop-up was launched high into the air. “Here we go. Watch this! There’s wind, boys! There’s wind, there’s wind!” as he raced around the bases to score, as the wind-whipped baseball fell to the ground and everyone in the booth howled with laughter.
Of course, this didn’t happen years ago. It happened not even three weeks ago, in early March, though anything that happened before the truth of the coronavirus pandemic really set in seems like a lifetime ago. Here are some highlights from Freeman’s mic’d up experience, which immediately went viral on social media.
Freeman wasn’t the only player mic’d up during a TV broadcast this spring. The Cubs had a game — Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo were outstanding — the Mets had a game and so did the Mariners and Red Sox and others. Each one caused a social media stir. Each one struck a chord with fans and players alike. Each one made the television viewing experience more enjoyable, and that’s what we all — MLB and the fans and the players — want.
At some point in the future, though nobody knows when, baseball will return. We will finally get our Opening Day and we will once again hear the crack of the bat, the pop of the catcher’s mitt and the roar of the crowd.
And we have one request: More, please.
More players mic’d up. More banter. More insight. More personalities. More laughs. More bleep’d out words. More authenticity. More inside baseball. More of everything, please.
This wasn’t the first mic’d up experience, of course. We’ve seen guys mic’d up in the spring before, and during exhibition-type events like the All-Star Game. Those have been great, too.
But, again: More, please.
Sporting News was at spring training when the Freeman game aired and we asked players for their thoughts on the mic’d up concept. First, this: Do you like it? That answer was a resounding yes.
“Here’s all you need to know: I watched a baseball game. Sean Doolittle watched a baseball game at home, on his own volition, because he thought it was cool,” the Nationals reliever told SN. “Between the film I watch, and sitting in the bullpen for like eight innings watching a game, I get enough baseball. I normally want a break when I’m away. But it was cool.”
Doolittle watched the Mets play the Cardinals.
“I was flipping through channels and I caught it,” he said. “And Jeff McNeil was in the middle of a sentence and spanks a double the left-center and I was like, ‘That’s sick.’ That’s really cool, you know? I think it’s fun.”
The Cardinals weren’t mic’d up in that game, but they were part of the fun, whether or not they knew what they were getting into.
“I got on first base and Pete (Alonso) was like, ‘Hey, just want to let you know I’m hot right now.’ I was like, ‘Hot as in it’s hot outside?’ ” Cardinals infielder Tommy Edman recalled with a laugh. “And then I heard him talking to himself and figured out, ‘Oh, he’s got a mic on.’ I had no idea what he was talking about at first.”
Lance McCullers Jr., spent the spring healthy and getting ready to return to the majors after a year recovering from Tommy John surgery. His Astros weren’t part of one of the mic’d up games, but he’s been friends with Alonso since high school, and he talked with his buddy.
“He really likes it. He thinks it’s a useful tool to help grow the game, to get baseball’s personalities out there,” McCullers told SN. “Baseball players are some of the most marketable people in the sports world, but they’re not marketed at all. Regardless of why it’s become that way, the only thing we can do now it try to move forward and make that more of a focus.”
And that’s the question we asked players: How does baseball move forward with this idea that, while not exactly novel — the NFL has been mic’ing up players since 1967 and Steve Sabol’s NFL Films company helped football’s popularity soar — could still be an incredibly powerful tool as MLB tries to solve its seemingly eternal player-marketing issues.
SN asked about the possibility of making mic’d up opportunities a regular part of regular-season games.
“I would imagine it’s going to happen,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “This game’s evolving every day. It’s fun.”
We reached out to MLB, too. It was clear from talking with both sides that a couple of guidelines would be necessary. Let’s start with this: A source at MLB said the league is always interested in bringing fans closer to the game, but the league also recognizes and respects the concentration and focus required to play in a MLB game.
That follows almost exactly what players told SN.
“Full-on interviews can be great during spring training,” Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty said, “but when you’re actually out there trying to compete in a regular-season game, it’s a little bit different when you’re going up to the plate and that game really does matter to your team’s won-loss record, that one game or one at-bat could be the difference.
“I couldn’t have somebody trying to have a conversation with me when I was trying to pitch. Now, if I was mic’d and you could hear us going back and forth in the dugout, that’s different.”
OK, so the full-out on-field interviews are gone, and that’s fine. They’re fun but far from necessary. The NFL’s success with on-field mic’d up players was never about interviews. It was always about letting players be themselves and showing those personalities to the fans. That concept works in baseball, too, though not everyone would be on board.
That wasn’t the only hesitancy, though.
“The little battery pack you have to clip on could become a side detractant,” Josh Reddick said. “You’re so used to your uniform being a certain way, then you feel something there that’s not normally there, that could throw you off in the batters box. You just never know. It could be an uncomfortable level you don’t want to deal with. Some guys it probably wouldn’t bother, but a lot of guys would probably pass in the regular season.”
So not everyone’s in. Great. No problem. Don’t need chatter from all 26 players on the roster anyway. Not all 26 players have the type of personality MLB wants to sell anyway. One, maybe two guys per game.
And, as the MLB source pointed out, live listens haven’t been part of the equation in the past. With good reason.
“It would also have to be censored,” Edman said. “You wouldn’t want to be hitting and worrying about what you’re saying. You want to be focused on your at-bat. If you missed a pitch and say, ‘Oh s—,’ and worry about that.”
“I’m sure some of it would be beep! beep! beep! beep!,” Martinez said with a grin. “But it’s just funny to listen and watch them interact.”
Again, fine. No problem. So with the restrictions in mind — no actual interviews for players in the action, nothing live and only players who want to participate — let’s blow this idea out when baseball finally returns, whether it’s in 2020 or, heaven forbid (because of what it would mean coronavirus has done globally) in 2021.
And even the skeptical players, as they see the benefits, would come around. The MLBPA should be all-in on an idea that would showcase the best personalities in the sport.
“There might be some of us, myself included, who might feel a little bit weird putting a mic on for a game,” Doolittle said. “It’d be a little different. But I think the more guys that do, more guys around the league would get more comfortable doing it. It won’t be viewed as something that somebody’s doing just to try to get attention or something. I think we’ve already seen how good it is for the game.”
Have players mic’d up during batting practice, in the bullpen and in the dugout. Share clips liberally throughout a game. And not just with national broadcasts on ESPN and FOX, but on the local networks, too.
The national broadcasts have had mics in the bases in the past, for “Sunday Night Baseball” and for postseason games, but make that a regular feature. And put cameras in the bases for new but unobtrusive angles, too — not to keep going back to the NFL, but think about how much fun the pylon cam is — and really show a different view of the sport.
Give the people what they clearly want.
“We have amazing fans in baseball,” McCullers said. “There is so much emphasis on making the game shorter, or this and that, but in baseball the fans that we do have are amazing, and the TV and revenue is going up every year. That’s coming from somewhere. The big narrative is that people don’t like baseball, or whatever the case may be, but I don’t think that using different ways to grow the game is a bad thing, ever. Anything within reason is great. Maybe more stuff during BP? That could be cool.”
He paused for a moment.
“There definitely is an opportunity,” he said. “People like this.”