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On Opening Day, The Bases Are Loaded

Local News Teams Cover the Field

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page C01

Like excited kids going to their first game, Washington's TV and radio news stations had only one thing on the agenda yesterday: the return of baseball to the city. And, boy, were they revved up.

From early morning to the first pitch in the evening, local stations had "team coverage" -- in TV-newspeak, that means more than one reporter on the story -- of the Nationals' first game at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

WUSA's Todd McDermott and Brett Haber broadcast just can't contain themselves over the home team as they sit inside Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium yesterday. (From TV)

You knew the story was a big deal because all the TV stations had special logos for the day. WTTG, Channel 5, went with a simple "Home Opener," while the one on WJLA, Channel 7, read "Back in the Big Leagues." Newschannel 8 ("Baseball's Back") and WRC, Channel 4 ("Play Ball!"), dressed up their logos with rotating baseballs.

With so much manpower chasing relatively few facts, things got pretty silly early on. Fox5's hyper-caffeinated morning reporter, Holly Morris, was literally jumping for joy (or something) as she interviewed "the Nat Pack," a cheerful group of young people who roam the field between innings, shooting T-shirts with a compressed-air gun into the crowd. Morris, naturally, had to take a turn shooting the air gun.

On another segment, Morris took lessons from stadium vendors on how to throw a customer a bag of peanuts. (It turns out that you cock your arm back, aim and, um, throw it.) She also stood in the dugout, pretending to make a mock call to the bullpen to illustrate how a manager might use the telephone.

Reporter Stephen Tschida from Channel 7 gave a tour of the field, pointing out such exotic highlights as "first base" and "the pitcher's mound." Inexplicably, he didn't explain the purpose of these features.

On WUSA, Channel 9, Jan Fox breathlessly investigated the Nationals' new mascot, which appeared to be a 600-pound human blimp, but it won't be officially revealed until Sunday's game. Fox didn't learn any secrets, but she was able to report, "He has toenails and he comes out of an egg."

Thanks, Jan. Stay with that story.

A parade of politicians, naturally, showed up to laud the Nationals' arrival and take credit for bringing them here. Linda Cropp, the city councilwoman who opposed Mayor Anthony Williams' initial deal to bring the Montreal Expos south, was all smiles on camera.

"The taxpayers of the District of Columbia got baseball, and they got a better deal," she said.

Most bizarre was a Channel 9 interview with Howard Denis, a Montgomery County council member. Denis recalled that the council passed a resolution in favor of bringing baseball to the area and that, yes indeed, Washington Senators pitching legend Walter Johnson once lived in Montgomery County.

Even the weather segments were pitched to the big game. Station forecasters made guesses about what the weather would be like at RFK at game time (consensus opinion: Fans would be wise to take a jacket). Channel 5's Tom Sater dressed up his forecast by relating the details of a 1907 game forfeited by the Philadelphia Phillies after fans threw snowballs at the players and umpires. Talk about being late on a story!

The overall tone of the day's coverage was celebratory, and that seemed appropriate. After a 34-year absence, the return of baseball did feel festive, an undeclared municipal holiday. Over and over, fans streaming into the stadium told interviewers of their joy at the game's return. Even the normally glacial demeanor of WRC anchor Jim Vance cracked at one point. "I don't even like baseball and I'm pumped up," he told viewers from his anchor perch overlooking the stadium.

Some of what aired, particularly on the stations' giddy morning programs, lapsed into downright boosterism, however. Anchors and reporters appeared on the field in official Nationals jackets, caps and T-shirts. "Go Nats!" urged Channel 9 morning anchor Andrea Roane, a sentiment seconded by her colleagues Mike Walter and Kim Martucci. WUSA sportscaster Levan Reid expressed his fond hope that the Nats would "rough up" opposing pitcher Javier Vazquez in the upcoming game. Several stations interviewed the Nationals' top marketing executive, Dave Cope, who was encouraged to shill for the team's $3,000-and-up party suites.

By evening, as game time approached, a bit of adult restraint crept in. The T-shirts and caps were gone, replaced by serious sports coats and ties. Channel 7 detailed the extensive security arrangements to protect dignitaries attending the game, including President Bush. Dave Statter, Channel 9's steady and solid metro reporter, served up a fine piece on neighborhood reaction to the hordes descending on RFK. One woman, interviewed by Statter while she watered her lawn, offered a rare dissenting note to the day-of-days tone: "I don't like baseball," she said glumly.

Was the wall-to-wall coverage excessive, especially following the almost saturation coverage of the Terri Schiavo case and the pope's death? Some local news managers argued no.

"There are so many angles to it -- the traffic mess, the weather -- and so much local interest," said Jim Farley, vice president of news and programming at all-news radio WTOP. "It's a political story . . . and it's been a suspense thriller, too, because we didn't know if we were going to get a stadium or get Cropp-ed."

WJLA News Director Bill Lord added that nostalgia for the Senators, and the long wait for a replacement, made the return of baseball a great cultural, political and economic story.

"It appeals to every demographic group you can think of," he said.

Of course, it's not as if this newspaper was a shrinking violet on the story, either. The Post had the largest contingent of reporters and photographers of any news organization covering Opening Day.

That even included one poor soul who was assigned to write about how excessive all the media coverage was.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company