In recognition of his 20th anniversary at ESPN and the Los Angeles Dodgers' and San Francisco Giants' appearance on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball this weekend, we decided to catch up with Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech. Here he shares how he got started in sports coverage, his fondest memories of Baseball Tonight, and some of his extended thoughts on the Dodgers and Giants.
How did you get into covering baseball and leading Baseball Tonight?
I was a soccer player, a baseball player, and a basketball player in high school but I tore my ACL my senior year, so my guidance counselor and I were trying to figure out what might interest me in college. I said sports, and I had an affinity for writing, so we married the ideas, and that’s what led me to Ithaca College. That’s where the love of communications and television was born. You just never know how things are going to work in this field, and I clearly have been as lucky as anyone to ever have been in it to have gotten as far as I’ve gotten.
Baseball Tonight was born out of having been at ESPN since 1993 and figuring out that I was best suited to having this ongoing conversation with analysts and playing off of them. I had done SportsCenter, and Baseball Tonight was a program with a lot of freelance and ad-libbing, and I was drawn to that part of it.
How has Baseball Tonight changed the way the MLB is covered?
It has a lot to do with the fans’ interest level. We have a culture now where fans, especially young ones, don’t want to sit and watch a baseball game for three or three-and-a-half hours. Major League Baseball has paid attention to that and done their best to move games along, but you’re still looking at an average time of two hours and forty-five minutes to three hours. Baseball Tonight provides a place for them to go for one hour, and you can get highlights of every game. And baseball fans don’t necessarily just want to see the highlights, but they want to know why things happen. The evolution of Baseball Tonight to the point it’s at now with the analysts we have—Hall of Famers in Barry Larkin, guys who are likely Hall of Famers in Curt Schilling, Orel Hershiser, John Kruk—the depth of the people we have make it an enjoyable watch for people who don’t have time to consume a full three-hour game.
What's your fondest memory of your time with Baseball Tonight?
Being outside of St. Louis for the World Series [in 2011] where there were 30,000 fans who literally showed up to watch the game outside the stadium. That was the night after David Freese had his huge Game 6. Our set was located outside the left-field wall in St. Louis. To feel the energy that night and to be around fans, that’s really the highlight of the whole thing. Some of these people watched me when they were really, really young—I’ve been privileged enough to be in the catbird seat, knowing that someone may have been seven years old when they began watching Baseball Tonight, and now they’re 27 years old. They’ve gone from being in third grade to perhaps having children. That’s really interesting. You have Vin Scully out there [in L.A.] so he can speak to what that means, but it’s been great to be in people’s homes and people’s hearts.
What does the Dodgers-Giants rivalry mean to you?
When I think of Dodgers-Giants, growing up 3,000 miles away, I think of Kirk Gibson and Willie McCovey. I think of Candlestick Park, I think of Dodger Stadium. Covering the Little League World Series was an eye-opener for someone from the east coast; I got to see how important and significant baseball is in that area. In the northeast, we were surrounded by football and basketball and hockey. It wasn’t baseball exclusive. And I understand that it’s not baseball only, but when I think of Dodgers-Giants, I think that’s baseball country out there. That’s where kids grew up playing baseball. That’s how I think of the rivalry. I recognize that where I grew up it was always about Red Sox-Yankees, but they have similar rivalries elsewhere. The Giants and Dodgers have both experienced the World Series, so it was easy to relate to. But it wasn’t until I got in to the ESPN booth that it became a national concept. To realize the same stuff going on in Massachusetts is going on in Los Angeles and San Francisco. So I don’t think of a particular game; I think of the uniforms, the players, and the ballparks when I think of Dodgers-Giants.
How can these teams fix their problems?
The Dodgers are curious. Obviously, having covered the Red Sox with the guys they’ve had, to see the Dodgers struggle with some of the same names is curious. The fact that Adrian Gonzalez has been part of both teams, the fact that [Carl] Crawford is there—I remember interviewing Terry Francona after the Red Sox had gotten all of those players. It was kind of a joke. “Where are you gonna hit everybody? You’re never gonna lose!” Those types of things seem to be present with the Dodgers. My sense is the Giants have a better chance to turn it around because they have more pitching depth than the Dodgers do, and this season has proven to be all about pitching. One guy who I wouldn’t necessarily put 100 percent of stock in on San Francisco is Tim Lincecum. Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong, barring health issues, are going to be able to figure it out. Madison Bumgarner is a really good two or three on any staff. Their pitching depth allows them the courtesy of having an offense that doesn’t click, and I don’t think that’s the case for the Dodgers.
I thought Matt Kemp was going to win the MVP this year. I’m a huge Matt Kemp guy, and I’ve been disappointed like the rest of the Dodger fans as to what’s going on with him and why he hasn’t been able to produce. I had him as a top three or top four player in baseball, and that obviously hasn’t happened yet this year. It may be an injury thing. One thing with players is that they never really divulge how hurt they may be. But unless someone’s willing to say it, there’s very little indication that is the case. He’s just too talented and too skilled to have anything like this last a long time. Having Clayton Kershaw—who’s the best young pitcher in baseball—is a bonus, but they’re a confusing team right now, and I can understand the frustration that [manager] Don Mattingly has been experiencing with the team.
Can the Dodgers be a contender before they nail down their starting rotation?
You need consistency, and beyond Kershaw, that was always going to be a question mark. Ted Lilly was their number seven guy, Josh Beckett is showing flashes but nothing consistent. They just don’t have the youth or depth that other teams like San Francisco have, and I don’t think they can contend without that. I think a lot of people hopped on the Angels-Dodger World Series possibilities, but it was easy to look at them and say, beyond Kershaw and Jered Weaver, where is the consistent pitching going to come from? C.J. Wilson has been disappointing. [Josh] Beckett isn’t a number two pitcher anymore. With all their offensive superstars, these teams are being compared to each other when maybe the greater comparison is the Dodgers compared with the Giants and the Angels compared with the Oakland A’s. The two teams by the Bay with young pitching may end up winning, while the two superstar teams with huge payrolls may not.
Will the Dodgers’ high-payroll style of assembling a team work out?
I don’t think their solution is going to be to simply throw money at the problem. I do think that having Stan Kasten as a part of that group, who did it in Atlanta, means there is a recognition of player development and scouting and how important it is. The Yankees have that reputation, but Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte were all homegrown guys. You need to have the system feed itself as much as you go out and spend. The Dodgers are in a wonderful position in that they have that luxury. What they need to do is develop some players from within, and when they can do that, they’ll be great.