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This Is 30: Celebrating 30 Seasons of MLB on ESPN

ESPN Celebrates 30 Seasons of Innovation, Special Moments and Its Groundbreaking Partnership with MLB, While Looking Towards the Future

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year marks 30 seasons of Major League Baseball on ESPN. In 30 seasons, ESPN has been home to historic moments and state-of-the-art innovations in the sport of baseball. ESPN and Front Row are highlighting the evolution of the game, the most memorable stories and the most important ways ESPN and MLB have collaborated through the years.

Celebrating a Barrier-Breaker

Our series continues with ESPN’s Claire Smith on the occasion of Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day, which includes a Monday Night doubleheader as the New York Mets face the Philadelphia Phillies at 7 p.m. ET and the Los Angeles Dodgers host the Cincinnati Reds at 10 p.m. on ESPN.

ESPN is commemorating the centennial year of Robinson’s birth with five cross-platform pieces that celebrate African-American baseball greats: essays on Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and the Negro Leagues. The features, voiced by Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, were written by Smith, the 2017 J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner and ESPN baseball news editor.

“This is the centennial year of Jackie Robinson’s birth, and the celebration gives us the opportunity to see the impact of a man who was born 100 years ago,” Smith said. “When he took the step, he showed the nation how it could come together.”

By telling these stories with the voice of Sharon Robinson, Smith added, we are bringing our audience closer to Jackie and the other subjects, helping us understand the history that was set in motion by the legendary first baseman.

“When putting history in perspective,” Claire said, “nothing is more valuable than someone who witnessed the games and series, and someone who called these people ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’ Sharon lived this history. . . she learned to swim at Dodgertown, a place where people both black and white could live together in respect. . . her mother and brother are still living, and Sharon has picked up the baton for the whole family. She is what we should all aspire to be. . .  through her experiences, she is able to share how linked all of the figures in this moment of history are, and it’s beautiful. 

”ESPN’s position in sharing this story is unparalleled,” Smith said. “We are not just showing the games. We are using them as platforms to show the newsworthiness of Jackie Robinson’s story. There are modern-day managers like Dave Roberts seeing Jackie as a mentor today.

“Baseball takes one day to show the significance of this event, and our storytelling power is unparalleled in bringing Jackie’s story to our audience.”

The Jackie Robinson statue at Citi Field. (Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)
The Los Angeles Dodgers during pregame ceremonies prior to a regular season MLB Civil Rights game. (Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)

An Enduring Partnership

Our series begins with Bernadette McDonald, Senior Vice President, Broadcasting Operations at MLB, who has been working with ESPN since the very beginning of the partnership in 1990. McDonald shares her favorite memories, innovations and how ESPN and MLB complement each other.

What are some of your memories about the initial launch of Major League Baseball on ESPN?

I think back to the launch and how everything was a learning curve for all of us. From scheduling, to production planning, to blacking out club markets properly. The initial contract called for a six-game-a-week package with double-headers on Tuesdays and Fridays and single games on Sundays and Wednesdays, in addition to Opening Day and Holiday game coverage. We produced over 160 games each year. With so many details to communicate between MLB, ESPN and the then 26 (yes, 26) clubs, and without the convenience of smart phones and advanced email technology, the fax machine was our best friend.

What innovation stands out the most about ESPN’s 30 seasons of broadcasting Major League Baseball?

Wow, there have been so many innovations throughout the seasons from K-Zone to front row cam (pictured), but I think the one that stands out to me the most is the robotic on the backstop. From where MLB and ESPN started, going park by park to address concerns, and now, to see it as a standard camera in all baseball telecasts and the evolution of its usage to cover the game is remarkable.

How would you describe the broadcasting partnership between ESPN and Major League Baseball?

I think we complement each other tremendously. Baseball is a day to day part of life with ups and downs, magical memories and heartbreaking moments…and for 30 seasons, ESPN has been there every step of the way to capture the visuals that make this game so special. From Cal Ripken’s 2,131st consecutive game at Camden Yards, to the 50th Anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson taking the field at Shea Stadium, to two historic trips to Cuba, to the last game at old Yankee Stadium, ESPN has partnered with us and narrated three decades of storytelling coverage of America’s pastime.

Chris Berman and Buck Martinez prior to Cal Ripken, Jr. surpassing Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played. (ESPN Images)
U.S. President Bill Clinton and Rachel Robinson are shown standing on the infield during "Jackie Robinson Night" in Shea Stadium back on April 15, 1997. (ESPN Images)
Bob Ley during Outside the Lines at the Tampa Bay Rays vs Cuban National Team spring training exhibition game. (Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)
New Yankee Stadium circa 2008. (Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

Emily Archacki produced the illustration.