NEW YORK — Cable-television shows about baseball are as common this time of year as a slow-footed first baseman or a hard-throwing leftie.
But what about a series in which studio hosts drool over the big numbers a player puts up on…Twitter? Or cite an All-Star hitter's unexpected approach to… walk-up music?
That's the premise of "Off the Bat From the MLB Fan Cave," a pop culture-infused look at America's pastime backed by Major League Baseball and produced and aired by MTV2. Premiering Tuesday in its regular slot at 11 p.m and hosted by network fixture Sway, rapper Fat Joe and comedians Chris Distefano and Melanie Iglesias, "Off the Bat" aims to take great baseball players and turn them into objects of celebrity fascination — complete with studio hangouts, double-entendre dishing and yes, talk of that T-Pain tune.
Welcome to MLB, "TRL"-style.
Speaking of the long-running MTV pop-music show "Total Request Live," celebrity culture has occasionally cropped up in sports-themed programming. ESPN briefly tried "ESPN Hollywood," and it regularly goes light on "SportsNation," while TMZ has made a foray into sports to expand its appeal among men. But few shows are as eager to engage as directly with players on matters of pop culture. And almost none have done it with the direct backing of a major pro league.
"Pop culture and baseball have been coming together for a while," Sway said. "It's just that no one's put a camera in front of it."
At a rehearsal session earlier this week, producers and talent were taking swings for the debut telecast from the Cave, the downtown hangout the league created for promotional and viral-video purposes, its all-glass facade that fronts a busy Manhattan intersection also evoking "TRL."
The group ran through a recurring segment called "Three Up, Three Down" that allowed hosts to riff on subjects baseball-ish (Derek Jeter's retirement) and less baseball-ish (an $18 hot dog at the Diamondbacks' Chase Field, complete with long-wiener jokes from Distefano and Iglesias).
They practiced a routine with a stand-in for Bryce Harper — the Nationals phenom will be their first guest — in which they ask him about walk-up music, and whiteboard-holding hosts try to guess the first album he bought, a la "The Newlywed Game." When the hosts are wrong, they're punished by being administered Harper's "brohawk," his famous porcupine-like 'do from last year's All-Star Game that is discussed on "Off the Bat" with the zeal that "Meet the Press" parses foreign policy.
Pre-recorded segments with players also will be sprinkled throughout the show. In one, Distefano asks Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw to dip balls in paint and hurl them at a canvas, the Jackson Pollock turn, a visual pun on "painting the corners."
MTV2 has ordered 30 episodes of "Off the Bat" and will shoot every Monday or Tuesday at the Fan Cave, usually working around the schedule of a player who has come to town for games against the Yankees or Mets. Red Sox star David Ortiz is also credited as an executive producer on the show; he advises hosts on player habits — particularly clubhouse music choices, a "Big Papi" specialty — though is mostly sticking to his day job.
Distefano, who has a kind of perma-smirk that suggests he's about to let you in on a good joke, sees a natural complement with traditional baseball programming. "The idea is that people watch the 10 o'clock 'SportsCenter' and then turn over to us to have some fun," he said.
Fat Joe provided his own take on "Off the Bat." "This show will be smart, witty and transcendent," he said, offering a not-quite-Little League level of humility. "When others find out about this, they're going to try to jack the concept."
Still, there's reason to wonder whether "Off the Bat" can find the right formula. Sports-pop culture shows can fall in tweener territory — not serious enough for the hard-core fan and not sufficiently broad for the celebrity-obsessed.
Paul Ricci, who runs development and production for MTV2, said he believes the show fills a niche despite the lighter sports content.
"We don't want to do baseball news. There are a lot of shows out there that do that better than we do," he said. "We want to dimensionalize the players and show what they're like outside of their uniforms."
It's not lost on observers that the sport getting this pop-culture treatment is baseball, which for the last decades has lost cachet to the NBA and NFL among MTV's teen and twentysomething demographic.
MLB has been trying to combat this, signing an overall deal last fall with MTV in an attempt to raise its youth profile.
In an interview, Tim Brosnan, executive vice president, business for Major League Baseball, said "Off the Bat" is "going to bring a different audience to experience the game." MTV, he said, "has a lens to talk to that 12-to-24 audience, and it's a really attractive lens to us." In that sense, "Off the Bat" is as much about restoring baseball's cool as it is about talking about Twitter and Taylor Swift.
Purists, of course, might argue that this waters down a game that should be about ERA and RBI, not OMG and LOL. But producers say that misreads not only what fans care about but also what interests the athletes themselves.
"When players are sitting around a dugout or clubhouse, they're not spending that much time talking about how someone is good at hitting left-handed pitching," said Bryan Terry, the co-executive producer of "Off the Bat" who also worked on "TRL." "They'll talk about what music they have on, or poke fun at someone for going to four Rihanna shows."
'Off the Bat From the MLB Fan Cave'