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How ESPN’s Karl Ravech envisions the next season of ‘Sunday Night Baseball’

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 1/22/2022 Peter Abraham
"Little League has always been my favorite event to cover," says ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" play-by-play announcer Karl Ravech (foreground). © AP "Little League has always been my favorite event to cover," says ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" play-by-play announcer Karl Ravech (foreground).

As an intern with Channel 5 in 1986, one of Karl Ravech’s duties was making sure the station had video when Larry Bird took questions while seated on a bench in the trainer’s room at the old Boston Garden.

“They’d hand me a microphone and I’d camp out on that bench,” said Ravech, a Boston native who grew up in Needham.

That led to a job with a station in Binghamton, N.Y., as a sports anchor and reporter. But success didn’t follow a straight line.

MLB labor dispute: With less than a month until spring training, players and owners gear up for Monday meeting

Ravech was passed over for a promotion. A younger broadcaster with less experience was given the job.

“It was a slap in the face,” said Ravech, who stayed with the station but enrolled at SUNY Binghamton to pursue a master’s degree in case television didn’t work out.

Ravech soon found a better job in Harrisburg, Pa. That led to a position with ESPN in 1993.

Now comes the biggest spotlight of his career, doing play-by-play for “Sunday Night Baseball” with David Cone and Eduardo Perez as the analysts.

This was one promotion Ravech unquestionably earned. His history with baseball at the network goes back to 1995 and includes calling the Little League World Series, the College World Series, Major League Baseball games, and Korean Baseball Organization games while MLB was shut down for much of the 2020 season.

It’s a perspective that should serve him well working with Cone and Perez.

“There’s a level of joy that you see every summer with the Little League kids,” said Ravech, who turned 57 on Wednesday. “I’m rooted in the fun aspects of baseball. What it was for all of us growing up playing and what it is for those teams.

“And I’ve seen the transition to the highest level of collegiate baseball, where many of those kids are going to end up being drafted and some will be in the major leagues.

“Then you see the major leagues, which is a business and sometimes it doesn’t have that same appeal to the masses that Little League does. Little League has always been my favorite event to cover. It’s because there’s a joy. They’re not encumbered by contracts or expectations . . . I love that old-school part of it.”

The major league game has changed as analytics became primary tools in setting defenses and guiding pitchers how best to attack hitters.

“Imagine how many hits Tony Gwynn would have had taken away from him if all of this information was there,” Ravech said. “You’d play in the 5-6 hole all the time and depending on the count you’d move.

“The biggest change from a visceral standpoint is when you were at a ballpark in 1975 and there’s a line drive or a ground ball past the pitcher, it’s for the most part a base hit. Now, more often than not, they’re in the right place and it’s an out.”

Ravech does not advocate banning shifts. He’d prefer to see hitters adjust and hit the ball to all fields. But he is in favor of a more radical idea: playing seven-inning games.

“I love baseball. It’s not broken. But it could be improved,” Ravech said. “The number of top-rate players I ask about seven-inning games and managers, current ones, the answers are 90 percent favorable . . . I think there’s validity to it. You need to improve the pace.”

From his experience covering Little League, Ravech says the fourth and fifth innings become urgent, and players and managers react accordingly. Urgency creates action and that’s entertaining.

“We want the baseball fan to recognize that every inning is important,” he said.

After four years of the telecast being geared toward the polarizing personality of Alex Rodriguez, “Sunday Night Baseball” will have a different feel with Ravech, Cone, and Perez. The focus will be on information.

“Here’s what I know: There’s no ego in the booth,” Ravech said. “I’ve never been an ‘I’ or ‘me’ guy. I don’t like those two words. It turns me off. There’s a curiosity from the three of us about the way the game is currently played.

“There’s a tremendous history with Eduardo and his Hall of Fame dad [Tony Perez]. There’s a great legacy with Cone and what he did with all the teams he played for.

“I’ve heard David say this: ‘There’s an appreciation of the past.’ We all have that. We’re all of a certain age. And there’s a real affection for the player today and the game today.”

Ravech’s history has been to engage his analysts. His sitting alongside a former pitcher in Cone and a hitter in Perez should make for a good conversation.

Cone, who has excelled on Yankees broadcasts, can work analytics into the mix without being preachy and brings the credibility of having won 194 games and five World Series rings.

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Perez, whose background is Cuban and Puerto Rican, has an extensive résumé. He played in the majors from 1993-2006 and has since worked in the media, as a manager in winter ball, in baseball operations for the Guardians, and as hitting coach of the Marlins, and bench coach of the Astros.

“This group will only get better,” Ravech said. “Cone, as good as he is now, he will find another level. Eduardo will push him that way.”

Now all they need is for the players and owners to come to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement so there’s a season.

“They seem to be speaking different languages,” Ravech said. “That troubles me. But my experience with [commissioner] Rob Manfred, because we had labor peace for 26 years, is that he’s a dealmaker. [Influential agent] Scott Boras, he’s a dealmaker. He appears to have some influence over this particular negotiation and also historically is known for making deals really late in the offseason.

“With that as a formula, I’m not optimistic. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the season started on time, either.”

ROLE PLAYER

Gomes: DH tag shouldn’t cost Ortiz

Jonny Gomes finds it strange that some Hall of Fame voters said they passed on David Ortiz because he was a designated hitter.

“As someone who was a DH for a lot of my career, it’s hard,” said Gomes, the former Red Sox outfielder and occasional DH. “You’re coached since you were a kid to take your mind off your last at-bat and go help the team by playing defense. But when you’re the DH, you can’t do that.

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“What do you do? You can watch the game or go back to the clubhouse and watch video or hit in the cage. It can drive you crazy. You only get four or five chances to help your team and there’s a lot of pressure on you.

“When I played, all the guys who were DHs — [Jason] Giambi, [Travis] Hafner, Frank Thomas, [Gary] Sheffield — we would always talk on the field before games and bounce stuff off each other. Everybody was trying to find the right approach.

“Papi, he found it. I really hope he gets in. The numbers speak for themselves. To say he was just a DH isn’t fair.”

Gomes had a .745 OPS as a DH. His OPS as an outfielder was .783.

A few other observations on the Red Sox:

· It was nice to see Jon Lester take a little victory lap after announcing his retirement this month. The lefthander, so stoic on the mound, did a few podcasts and other interviews and was clearly at peace with his decision and enjoying looking back at all he accomplished.

David Ross has already said Lester is welcome to visit Cubs spring training any time he wants. Another former teammate, Alex Cora, should make the same offer.

Cora was on the field when Lester threw his no-hitter, and Jason Varitek caught it.

The Sox blew it with Lester 7½ years ago when they traded him. But that doesn’t mean they can’t make him feel welcome again. A reunion in Fort Myers, Fla., would be a good start.

· It’s time Red Sox first base coach Ramón Vázquez gets more consideration as a major league manager. He led Caguas to the championship of the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League in Puerto Rico again this winter.

That’s four championships in winter ball since 2015 for Vázquez, who is 45.

· Former Red Sox first base coach Tom Goodwin took a position with the Braves as a roving minor league instructor. Goodwin told The Athletic the job offer came after he received his first two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Triston Casas headlines Red Sox prospects invited to Fort Myers for Winter Warmup

The Sox fired Goodwin after last season and said at the time his vaccine status was not a factor. But Goodwin’s refusal to be vaccinated was a cause of frustration within the organization and he wasn’t eligible to be on the field during the playoffs under MLB rules.

Goodwin said he needed to do additional research before being vaccinated.

Another former Red Sox coach, Brian Butterfield, is unvaccinated and jobless. The 64-year-old told The Athletic he does not trust the vaccine.

New Mets manager Buck Showalter was eager to hire Butterfield, but his status stood in the way. The Mets did hire former Sox bullpen coach Craig Bjornson in the same role.

· Christian Vázquez played nine games in Puerto Rico for Santurce and was 5 of 31 with three extra-base hits. He only struck out four times. Vázquez played first base seven times and was the DH twice.

Don’t read too much into his playing first base. Vázquez didn’t want to risk injury by catching.

ETC.

Where will the Rays land?

The Athletics and Rays have been working on new ballpark plans for years with little tangible progress. Oakland finally had some encouraging news this past week, but Tampa Bay ran into a wall.

Oakland’s planning commission gave its approval for a 34,000-seat park as part of a larger waterfront development project downtown. Now it goes to the City Council. It will obviously take time to come together, but the idea of the Athletics moving to Las Vegas is losing steam.

The Rays have trouble. MLB’s executive council, which includes Red Sox principal owner John Henry, rejected the idea of the team playing half of its home games in Montreal. The Rays are back at square one with their lease at Tropicana Field expiring after six more seasons.

“It’s discouraging,” owner Stu Sternberg said.

For 2½ years — and with the public support of commissioner Rob Manfred — Sternberg and the Rays have been pushing the idea of building smaller new ballparks in Tampa Bay and Montreal and playing 41 games in each city.

Sternberg was asked if he felt betrayed by his fellow owners.

“That’s a word,” he said.

The sister-city plan is seemingly loaded with intractable obstacles. But Sternberg said repeatedly during a news conference Thursday that it will become commonplace in professional sports over time.

He could be right; the Rays have been industry leaders in innovation for years. But for now, Sternberg seems to have few choices. He can build a park in the Tampa Bay area, move the team, or sell the team.

“We’re going to be exploring things in the Tampa Bay region,” Sternberg said.

The Rays averaged 9,396 fans at Tropicana Field last season, third fewest in the majors. That was for a 100-win team that won the pennant in 2020. Would moving 25 miles from St. Petersburg to Tampa improve that?

Nashville has financial backers and a stadium plan in place. Charlotte, N.C., has ambitions and perhaps this news will motivate Montreal to go all-in instead of half-in.

Geographically, a division with Boston, New York, Toronto, and Montreal would make great sense. But baseball failed in Montreal once. Would the executive council green-light that idea?

Oakland got its ballpark plan moving forward after sending team officials to look at sites in Las Vegas. Sternberg doesn’t want to use such strong-arm tactics.

“That seems to be 101 in the playbook of getting stadiums and arenas built. I don’t criticize it; it just hasn’t been my way,” he said.

Extra bases

The Nationals are intent on improving how they develop players, creating 14 positions on their minor league staff. It’s a process that started by naming De Jon Watson as director of player development in November. The Nationals seem to favor former Red Sox players and coaches. Recent hires include Coco Crisp (outfield and base running coordinator), Bill Mueller (quality control coordinator), Joel Hanrahan (Low A pitching coach), Dave Jauss (senior adviser), and Billy McMillon (Triple A development coach). The Nationals already had Brian Daubach (Triple A hitting coach) and Sandy Martinez (Dominican Summer League manager). Washington also remade its analytics staff and will increase its use of technology in the minor leagues . . . When a high school player signs to play professionally, you often hear about a clause in the contract that his college education will be paid for if he pursues a degree. That was the case with Chris Young when he signed in 2001. He went on to play 13 seasons and make $51.6 million but didn’t give up on college. Now 38, Young graduated from Arizona State last month after earning his degree in three years. He said he wanted to set a good example for his two young daughters and open some doors professionally . . . The deadline to apply for the Hall of Fame’s Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development is Jan. 31. The program provides meaningful, hands-on training while learning and working in the company of baseball’s best-known personalities during the annual Hall of Fame weekend. Positions available for the summer of 2022 include museum collections, communications, curatorial, development/membership, education, library research, marketing, manuscript archives, photo and digital archives, public programs, social media, and special events. Go to baseballhall.org/discover-more/education/internship-program to apply . . . All the best to Tom Haudricourt, who is retiring from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after 36 years of covering baseball and always with a good sense of humor . . . Happy birthday to Wily Mo Pena, who is 40. The Sox sent Bronson Arroyo to the Reds during spring training in 2006 to land Pena, an outfielder with what Theo Epstein said at the time was “silly power.” The Sox decided they had too many starting pitchers and traded Arroyo so Matt Clement and David Wells could have rotation spots. Alas, the only thing silly was the trade. Pena hit only 16 homers for the Sox over parts of two seasons before being sent to the Nationals. Arroyo went 14-11 with a 3.29 ERA for the Reds, making the All-Star team in the first of what was a long string of productive seasons. Clement and Wells combined to go 7-8 with a 5.93 ERA over 20 starts and the Sox finished third. Cheers to 2004 champion Alan Embree, who is 52.

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