For 24 years, Karl Ravech has been an ESPN mainstay. He’s been the face of Baseball Tonight for decades, and in recent years, he’s added an array of other responsibilities, namely play-by-play duties, to his plate. Ravech is a regular on Monday Night Baseball games, men’s college basketball, Little League World Series, the College World Series and more.
This week, ESPN’s “Mr. Baseball” scored a particularly significant interview. His one-on-one conversation with New York Yankees icon Derek Jeter will be part of ESPN’s cross-platform coverage of Derek Jeter Night, Sunday, May 14, at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Front Row caught up with Ravech to discuss his relationship with the legendary Yankees shortstop through the years and how Ravech’s on-air role continues to expanded now in his third decade with the company.
What did you take away from your conversation with Derek Jeter prior to this weekend’s ceremony?
Among the many things Derek Jeter gets credit for perhaps we don’t talk about this enough: his memory. When I sat down with him last week the first thing he said after we exchanged hellos was, “I was with you on the set of ESPNEWS the night it made its debut, you and me and Casey Close [Jeter’s agent] drove up from New York together. Truth is, Jeter and I did about a 15-minute interview on the new set and it was the first of many we did over the next 20 years.
What was it like covering Jeter throughout his legendar career?
Derek’s Major League debut coincided with my taking over the primary hosting roles of Baseball Tonight. Just by virtue of my job requirements, I can safely say that there are not many people who have watched Derek play more games than me. As we sat down to talk about his upbringing and what it will be like to have his No. 2 retired, it struck me that while he is older and more mature, he’s not necessarily any different than he was when he was a rookie. His maturity then allowed him to succeed on the most challenging stage of all. His desire to be the best, to work at things – his defense, which improved so dramatically, he won five Gold Glove Awards. Derek speaks reverentially about his parents and there is no doubt that his mom and dad instilled in him an internal network to be focused, to be fair and to be smart. Jeter was a very cool customer when we sat on the set of ESPNEWS in 1996 and 21 years later as he prepares to have his No. 2 retired and his legend cemented among the greatest Yankees to ever play baseball, he is still almost too good to believe.
What has it been like to expand your role with ESPN over the years?
It’s an evolution and it has been incredibly rewarding. With regards to the play-by-play roles in both baseball and college basketball, those are a natural progression from the studio work done on both sports since I arrived at ESPN 24 years ago. While that may seem like a long time ago, the truth is I have been doing play-by-play of both sports since college but had put that part of my career on the shelf temporarily while working in studio on both Baseball Tonight and for 20-plus years on SportsCenter.
Thankfully, our management team provided some terrific opportunities to call games and combine the studio work with the remote teams. Their willingness, and my co-workers over the years who have made similar successful transitions – Mike Tirico, Chris Fowler and Rece Davis, to name a few – opened eyes and doors to the possibilities. I have maintained for some time that in order to gain greater credibility in the studio, it is critical to be out in the field talking with and reporting on those you cover. That personal connection with the athletes, coaches, and managers is critical on a variety of levels, most importantly with our consumers.
What are the differences in covering MLB vs. college basketball?
The sense of urgency in college basketball magnifies your ability to weave conversation and stories in and out between the critical game action. The first 10 college games I did this season, I worked with nine different analysts. Doing a game with Dick Vitale is different than with Jim Calhoun, and one with LaPhonso Ellis is different than with Seth Greenberg. The ability to make each and every one of them feel comfortable enough to speak freely (not an issue with Vitale) comes from years and years in the studio. When the analyst is comfortable and conversational, they are better, which means the viewers’ experience is better.
How do you approach Baseball Tonight: Sunday Night Countdown, knowing it’s now a vital part of Sunday Night Baseball each week?
Being on site is an enormous asset for us leading into the game. It allows us to interact with all the players, coaches and managers. Nothing can substitute for that access and that level of communication, and the payoff is immediate. Talking with Joe Girardi around the cage during batting practice 15 minutes before show time about his team, his players and even how he took his mother-in-law out to dinner while in Chicago for the Cubs series yields great dividends for the viewer.
The fact that we are on the road almost every week has really narrow-focused us into being a true pre-game show. Our producers and staff know the game, both producer Greg Colli and researcher Justin Havens offer their insights into the big picture items affecting Major League Baseball which can lead to dynamic discussion and debate among our commentators during the show. Their willingness to listen to what our analysts have to say and figure out a way to incorporate those thoughts into Baseball Tonight make our team, as I have always maintained, the best team in baseball.