August 19, 2011 3:22pm PT by Tim Goodman
Is Showtime's 'The Franchise' Hurting the San Francisco Giants?
For the record, I've worried about what impact The Franchise: A Season With the San Francisco Giants would have on my team. A team that is no longer in first place. A team that looks distracted and confused. A team that can't hit for you know what.
I've also said I love The Franchise -- with the caveat being I have no critical faculties in place to review a show based on my beloved baseball team. Even my fantasy baseball team is annoyingly titled Your World Champion Giants. That said, with the initial six episodes having finished on Wednesday -- and two more added for the next two weeks -- some things can be gleaned from the series and others can be guessed at.
First, I'd say The Franchise's growth in viewers most weeks relates directly to the series ability to hit on the emotional elements in the team -- Ryan Vogelsong's amazing story from being out of baseball to being an All-Star; Brian Wilson's story about his father's cancer and brain tumor; and a few other off field stories that reached out to viewers more than just a baseball story would.
But my initial worry was about distraction. It's one thing for the New York Jets to go on HBO's Hard Knocks - it's a 16 game football season. Baseball is 162 games. And even though The Franchise condenses events, the camera crew has been around for a long, long time. Even if you buy into the notion that the camera eventually evaporates when people are being recorded constantly, you have to wonder if there's a lack of focus effecting the Giants because they're in the spotlight (in addition to having a target on their respective foreheads for being world champs).
Yes, this may be my way of blaming The Franchise for the recent slide in good fortune instead of the Giant's incredibly lame ability to actually score runs. That, by the way, is a story that The Franchise is hitting on, but perhaps not hard enough. With one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball, the Giants wouldn't have let a team like the Arizona Diamondbacks linger in the NL West race this long (and, indeed, eventually move past the Giants into first place) if they actually had hitters making contact. Tim Lincecum might have 20 wins by now if he was a Yankee.
(Speaking of LIncecum, it took an awful long time for The Franchise to really focus on him and I'd argue they haven't done enough, given that he's really The Franchise rather than The Freak.)
In all seriousness, it would be impossible to lay blame entirely on The Franchise for the Giants not getting it done on the field. That's just me trying to slyly scapegoat. But I do believe there's an element in play here that can't be ignored (even if the players say that, no, the cameras are not a distraction, they're pros who need to get the job done no matter what, blah blah blah). Take Aubrey Huff as a prime example, followed in short order by Cody Ross, two heroes from last year's glorious run. Both of them are having off years and both suffered through brutal early-to-midseason stretches. It was during those times -- less so now that Huff and to a lesser extent Ross have emerged a bit -- where one might have to consider what happens to a baseball player in a serious slump when the camera is constantly on them. And I think The Franchise cameras and the show in general are perceived differently than the beat reporters and daily press that cover the team. They are used to the latter and, obviously, most of those cameras and recorders play to a decidedly local market. But The Franchise, no matter what ratings it may get, is a national spotlight, a first-ever project from Showtime and Major League Baseball.
If you're barely hitting your weight - or in some cases, under it -- how much grinding goes on wondering if the next team to be profiled in The Franchise (which could be any of them) is out there watching and mocking your struggles. I'd argue the attention the Giants are getting above and beyond that which comes from being world champs, is in someway different via The Franchise than it is being on the MLB Network or ESPN's SportsCenter, (which doesn't give a damn about most West Coast teams anyway, champs or not).
I would also argue that the psychology of a baseball player is different than that of a football player. It's a more cerebral game (beyond the X's and O's of football, obviously) and one where, if you get into a funk, an awful lot of doubt can creep in (the series is doing a fine job documenting Barry Zito's struggles -- and he's a player that fits perfectly into the notion that baseball players live in their head too much, no matter what Zito says on camera).
There is something to being in the spotlight -- all the time. Followed home, followed to the park, tracked down when you've been sent down (Brandon Belt, Emmanuel Burriss), etc. While my desire to scapegoat The Franchise is just a joke that may not explain away the woes of the Giants (where a horrendous string of injuries and inability to make a bat square up a baseball have more to do with it), I feel safe in saying that if The Franchise is not hurting the Giants, it's not helping them either.
As or the series itself, this could not be a better season to follow the Giants for drama (check that - duh - last year would have been better). But there's no end to the stories this year. Among them: how the biggest move the Giants made -- adding Carlos Beltran at the trade deadline -- is playing out on camera. So far, it's not. Beltran isn't loquacious to start with and seemed, once he'd been traded from the Mets and plopped in a van and driven to the Giants with a camera crew in his face, less than eager to participate. The Franchise, in the next two epiosodes, might want to consider getting into how the trade hasn't exaclty ignited the team (especially since Beltran is currently on the DL).
Late additions like Jeff Keppinger and Orlando Cabrera have had to be tossed into the mix, but Keppinger - in the tradition of all Giants this year -- is hurt and Cabrera, also in the tradition of this current line-up, can't hit. So they haven't really made an impact on the storyline in The Franchise.
Ah, the storyline. What is it, exactly? For Giants fans, the show is partly frustrating because it's behind the current action so, for example, it may be no fun rewatching Atlanta take 3 of 4 from them and how that played in the locker room. And fans who watch daily know that there are dozens of good storylines that either aren't being address or are being truncated, losing their emotional impact (although, to be fair, a couple of hours of air time watching Huff and Ross and everybody else miss balls might be boring).
Not surprisingly, The Franchise is in love with Wilson, the charismatic closer. (But now he's hurt -- thanks for that, you cursed show!) Elsewhere, the half-hour format (where, admittedly, they jam a lot in) can't seem to contain enough of the ongoing storylines. Or, conversely, as it chases those many stories, it may not focus on the bigger ones -- like, counterintuitively, how this season may actually be judged a success to this point because the Giants are still very much in it despite all the injuries and distractions (ahem) and could very likely win the division again. As they proved last season, this is not a team you want to face in the playoffs.
Of course, back in that glory year, all the hits were timely. Now, there are no hits. And this year, the team is decimted by injury (Buster Posey, Freddie Sanchez out for the season, on down a very lengthy list of DL-occupants).
Oh, and as I write this, Pablo Sandoval -- aka Kung Fu Panda -- has just been scratched with an injury.
Damn you, Franchise!
Let's see what kind of narrative the series can wrap-up with in the next two weeks (unless it gets extended again). Then it will be easier to judge its impact as a TV show and as something you might not want to wish on another team. Unless that team is the Dodgers, of course.