Baseball makes a pitch for TV stardom

On a sunny, spring-training morning, the Freak (Tim Lincecum), the Beard (Brian Wilson), the thong guy (Aubrey Huff) and the rest of the camera magnets on the World Series champion San Francisco Giants were clowning through warmups in anticipation of an afternoon game.

But as far as one television crew was concerned, the real story was taking place just off the Giants' pristine field at Scottsdale Stadium. On a hushed stairwell behind the visitors' dugout, Marc Kroon was being interviewed — and not about his chances of earning a bullpen spot as a 38-year-old reliever who threw for much of the last decade in Japan.

The Bronx native was being asked about his father, who has struggled with substance-abuse problems. Kroon's father had largely abandoned him but would show up periodically and ask for money. Once after another long absence, in an effort to reconcile with his father, Marc brought his two young sons to meet their grandfather for the first time — and again, his father begged for money. Would Kroon ever reach out again to his dad? No. He'll only go to his funeral.

"It doesn't bother me to talk about stuff like that on camera," Kroon said later. "It is what it is, but the Japanese didn't ask questions like that."

Kroon's poignant tale is not intended for a Japanese audience but an American one much more accustomed to the personal details of failure and triumph, of fame and celebrity. His comeback story will be wrapped into a joint TV project between Major League Baseball productions and Showtime that promises an insider's look at a champion baseball team. The program, called "The Franchise: A Season with the San Francisco Giants," will air in a half-hour sneak preview April 13, and this summer it will run as an hour-long series for at least six episodes on the premium-cable network.

The show seeks to capitalize on the national obsession for sports programming, big pieces of which are expanding, not fragmenting as are most things in the new digital world. The most compelling example is the National Football League, which recently logged its most-watched season ever on TV and thanks to the Super Bowl set a record for the largest audience in U.S. history.

Sports reality programming aims to transfer the on-field drama off the field. The franchises and players are poised and ready and only require easy-to-conceal cameras to start recording in the front offices, locker rooms and sometimes, even the bedroom. Whether it's football receiver Chad Ochocinco's VH-1 reality dating show "The Ultimate Catch" or HBO's documentary-style "24/7" series that has focused by turns on the NHL, NASCAR and boxing, the burgeoning genre has been successful in attracting new fans, while also often bolstering the cache of the networks.

"There's a reason why 'Dancing with the Stars' always has an athlete," said Brad Adgate, a vice president of research at Horizon Media. Of course, added Adgate, baseball is not football. It still may be known as the national pastime, but more than a few find the leisurely pace of a nine-inning game beyond tedious. "As with wild-card teams and expanded playoffs, it's baseball once again trying to catch football," he said. "We'll have to see how well this works."

MLB vs. the NFL

To win a championship as the Giants did last year, immense drive and perseverance are required. And perhaps just as much competitive instinct is needed to get such a show off the ground. Both Showtime and Major League Baseball are locked in intense battles for market share, not to mention prestige, against rivals that are at the top of their game. For Showtime, "The Franchise" is in part an answer to HBO's highly regarded 10-year-old "Hard Knocks" series about a pre-season NFL team.

HBO's choice last year of the New York Jets scored big for the premium-cable channel. While averaging an impressive 4.4-million viewers per episode, up roughly 30% from the previous season, "Hard Knocks" catapulted brash and uncensored Coach Rex Ryan into media stardom.

For baseball, which has already aired a pair of respected but little-watched reality-based series on its own MLB Network, the venture is clearly designed to tap into a broader audience and burnish the brand. But baseball executives don't much care for comparisons with pro football, and certainly not when it comes to specific programs such as "The Franchise" and "Hard Knocks."

"The first point of differentiation is that we actually have the defending World Series champions," said Chris Tully, senior vice president of broadcasting at Major League Baseball. "We're extending into the regular season to give a clearer picture and to have a longer period of time to develop storylines and character. Also, I'd suggest there will be less playing to the camera."

And then there are the Giants. By putting up with the cameras at least through the middle of the summer, the ballclub aspires to become a true national team and help tilt coverage away from the dominant East Coast powers like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies.

"'Hard Knocks' and '24/7' have been so successful I don't see how baseball could possibly lose," said Kevin Blackistone, a regular panelist on ESPN's "Around the Horn." "To actually go behind the scenes and see what it's like for the players day after day to play baseball, to pack their bags, travel to city after city, to try and stay in touch with their families at home and all that kind of stuff ... it's going to be mesmerizing."

Dubious ballplayers

When the show was pitched to the Giants — chosen for their colorful roster of players and their postseason triumphs — some players were skeptical. Already under the glare of media attention, many players and coaches weren't comfortable inviting more cameras into their lives.

"Our No. 1 concern was that this would be a distraction for the club," said Giants Manager Bruce Bochy, a veteran coach whose imposing size makes him look more like a lumberjack. "Because we have work to do and the last thing we needed coming off a World Series was another distraction."

Part of the team's initial hesitance was rooted in anxiety about the genre of "reality TV," which conjured up images of "Survivor" and Snooki. But the executives behind the program said "The Franchise" was never thought of as that kind of show. "We don't view this as reality programming, we view it as a documentary series," said Tully. "It will have a fly-on-the-wall perspective, and we're not in any way looking to alter the day-to-day activities of the subjects."

The team's hesitations proved serious enough that David Nevins, Showtime's president of entertainment, flew in to address the Giants in person. The Showtime executive assured the players that if they needed to close a door, they could close it. He also agreed to end shooting around the end of July, before the pressures of the pennant race. "The clubhouse is a sacred space," Nevins said he told the players. "'We're not some faceless network looking to put a spin on you guys."

That promise has been tested more than a few times, and it seems to be working out. For example, a crew wanted to shoot the often tearful goodbyes between the players and their families, a common occurrence during the grueling travel schedule players endure. But infielder Mark DeRosa declined the request to film his spring training farewell to his children, 7 and 1. "I wasn't ready to do that," said DeRosa. "It's too personal with the young children."

But other Giants didn't need persuading to let the cameras into their lives. Infielder Freddy Sanchez gladly brought along a flip-cam on his Valentine's Day dinner with his wife and two sons. A camera caught pitcher Barry Zito on his drive home after a solid performance. And in the offseason, an MLB crew accompanied Bochy as the manager reeled in a 200-pound blue shark off the San Diego coast.

"I wasn't hesitant at all about the show," said Sanchez, who attended Burbank High School and is a fan of reality shows like the "Real Housewives" franchise and "Judge Judy." "It's going to be great for the team, the organization and the fans."

The show really got jump-started last summer shortly after Nevins, a producer on such celebrated scripted programs as "Friday Night Lights" and "Arrested Development," joined Showtime. He'd wanted to do a series on baseball for a long time and soon met with league officials who were also looking to branch out. "I'd been pitched this show a million times in scripted form," said Nevins. "The most common one was the owner dies and his daughter takes over the team — a woman in a man's world."

Instead he wanted a reality, documentary-styled show that "captured the whole organism of a big league ball club — the owners, the manager, the players, the employees, the wives, the parents and all with a 360-degree view." Ideally, say producers, off-field moments will make up about 70% of the show. Of course, to get them for an hour-long episode takes hundreds of hours of shooting and judicious editing. Like any scripted program, the key to the show's appeal will be its storylines and characters — and the Giants have no shortage of those.

"It doesn't take a genius to figure out Brian Wilson will be a major character," said Gary Waksman, a senior producer for MLB Productions. Wilson, who may miss a few games of the regular season because of a muscle strain, is famous for being one of the most intimidating closers in baseball and his penchant for hair fun, which has included a mohawk cut and his current black-dyed beard. One of his buddies is Charlie Sheen.

Other potential storylines: Kroon as a comeback player; third basemen Pablo Sandoval's battle with his waistline; Brandon Belt, the exciting rookie; Lincecum's quest for a third Cy Young Award; and Bochy's ability to corral them all.

"'Friday Night Lights' wasn't just about a football coach and his team, it was also about the culture of football in West Texas," said Nevins. "It was clear that the show's appeal was about character and had little correlation with who was actually a football fan."

Taking the heat

As the Jets' Rex Ryan demonstrated, athletes have a special verbal imagination. While the gigantic Ryan became a star, Super Bowl coach and NBC football analyst Tony Dungy was among many who were critical of Ryan's salty language and thought it reflected poorly on the league.

The producers aren't worried. "If it flows from the game, we'll use it," said Waksman. "This is baseball. It has a jagged edge, and it's not G-rated."

That message came too late perhaps for first baseman Aubrey Huff. During an early spring-training practice he was miked up. As the infielder famous for wearing thongs ran across the field, he uttered a string of expletives into his microphone.

"They won't be able to use that," he joked.

"Yes, we can," answered back an MLB producer. "It's Showtime."

martin.miller@latimes.com

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