The insanity has finally ended. ABC Family will not air another playoff baseball game this season, and hopefully never will again. Last week, the Disney-owned network televised 10 ballgames. This week, it will broadcast 10 episodes of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in one day.

Paul Wong
Steve Jackson

While it was in the middle of airing playoff baseball, ABC Family’s website didn’t contain a single image of a popular pro ballplayer. No Derek Jeter, no Barry Bonds – nothing. Instead, the top links on the site provided information about how to create easy-to-make Halloween costumes and spooky snacks.

ABC Family and Major League Baseball, what a perfect match. What were those evil, baseball-hating television executives thinking?

Villain No. 1: Hmm… we could put baseball on C-Span or even C-Span II.

Villain No. 2: I think The Food Network has space available.

Villain No. 3: No wait, I’ve got it – We’ll put it on ABC Family, no grown man ever watches that trash.

After that exchange, I imagine they each bellowed out an evil laugh while rubbing their hands together.

Once this devilish plan was publicly explained (as anyone who watches real ABC Family programming will know), we expect the hero to come foil the plan and bring playoff baseball back to where it belongs. But that doesn’t work when Bud Selig plays the hero role.

Sadly, this was just the sort of public relations gaffe that our bumbling commissioner is best at. Right after an exciting World Series last fall, Selig announced plans to contract two clubs. So after the most successful baseball labor negotiations since the dawn of time – which really isn’t saying much – it would only make sense for baseball to approve an 11:06 p.m. Eastern start time for a playoff game on the “S-Club 7” network.

By the time that game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the St. Louis Cardinals reached the late innings, most Michigan students were already in bed. But the real tragedy is that on a school night in St. Louis, where baseball is still as popular as anywhere in the country, an entire generation missed a chance to see their team beat Randy Johnson in the playoffs because their parents made them go to bed.

Baseball easily could have solved this problem by forcing Disney to air the game an hour earlier. I don’t think anyone would complain about canceling the British version of “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

This was supposed to be baseball’s chance to expose its best product to a captive national audience, but instead the powers that be decided to compete with Jay Leno because the world would slip into total anarchy if there was any overlap between this game and the primetime battle between the New York Yankees and the Anaheim Angels, which was broadcast on Fox.

It’s no wonder that youth baseball is losing numbers to skateboarding, soccer, PlayStation2 and the Internet.

“When he heard the game wouldn’t start until 10 o’clock (central time), my 11-year-old son Zack started crying,” Marty Maier, the Cardinals’ director of amateur scouting told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “And I’m sure it was like that with a lot of young fans in St. Louis.”

It’s clear that baseball has no interest in actually marketing its sport. It simply cashes the television check and ignores the fact that none of its fans know where to find the game on the dial.

So why didn’t someone with some authority on the network side at least move these games to one of the company’s real sports networks (ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2)?

Tom Cosgrove, executive vice president of ABC Family, said his network had first dibs on the playoff games (which were sold to Disney along with the rest of the programming for the old Fox Family channel) and he chose to keep them.

“We wanted them because the ratings are strong and because of the promotional platform they provide,” Cosgrove told The New York Times. “The games have brought us a strong male audience we wouldn’t ordinarily reach. We’re trying to use baseball to bring in new viewers and get them excited about what’s happening on our channel.”

Cosgrove got a few new viewers, but trust me – not one member of that target audience was excited about seeing the endless reruns of “America’s Funnies Home Videos” and “7th Heaven” that will fill baseball’s primetime slots on ABC Family this week.

His supposed purpose was further undermined by the presentation of the game, which included ESPN logos and ESPN personalities like Joe Morgan, Jon Miller and Chris Berman. I watched several of these games, and it was very seldom that I saw the ABC Family logo. If it weren’t for all the female-centered commercials that promised to “balance out your hormones and improve your skin tone,” I would have sworn that I was watching “The Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so harsh on the baseball gods. After all, they did get a few things right. When the Fall Classic rolls around this year, it’ll be broadcast on a real sports network (FOX) at a reasonable hour (8 p.m. Eastern), and the New York Yankees will be watching at home.

Steve Jackson can be reached at sjjackso@umich.edu.

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