ESPN's 'Baseball Tonight' Makes Its Red Carpet Debut at the 'Million Dollar Arm' Premiere
If Jon Hamm's acting career ever flounders, he can always try his hand at sports commentary!
ESPN's flagship show Baseball Tonight aired live for the first time from a Hollywood premiere Tuesday when the Mad Men star's latest film, Million Dollar Arm, debuted at the El Capitan Theatre. The Hollywood Reporter was invited behind the cameras for an inside look at the production.
A movie about a sports agent and two Indian teens who aspired to play professional baseball was the perfect reason for host Karl Ravech, ESPN analyst Barry Larkin and MLB insider Tim Kurkjian to go on a road trip, and they prepared for the special broadcast by watching the L.A. Dodgers game and analyzing the action before they went in front of the hundreds of fans gathered on Hollywood Boulevard to see Hamm on the baseball-themed green carpet.
Back home at ESPN's hub in Bristol, Conn., the team has 16 different screens airing every play of the MLB action; however, at its temporary base below the historic movie theater on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, the experts had to manage with one TV, their trusty cell phones, iPads, laptops and a helping hand from their producer who makes it look as seamless as possible.
"This is the first time we've aired at a movie premiere," Ravech, who has a cameo in Million Dollar Arm, tells THR.
"Barry, myself and Curt Schilling sat on the film set and did a segment like we were just appearing on the show. It was very easy and natural. People think we were actually acting but that’s just what we do. They just told us to ad-lib and pretend that the pitchers we were talking about weren't very good," he explains of his rookie movie role.
"We're not doing anything different from what we normally do," adds Baseball Hall of Famer Larkin.
Broadcasting live at a Hollywood premiere, however, is something different, even though they have done the show on the road at historic stadiums such as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, as well as at numerous World Series games.
"We’re used to filming in baseball stadiums surrounded by thousands of people, but they’re all baseball fans," explains Kurkjian before the cameras start rolling. "There are some curious characters out there and I’m not interviewing baseball players, I’m talking to actors, and I don’t know some of them. This is going to be a big thing," he says cautiously. "Alan Arkin is going to look at me and think, 'Who are you?'
"It is harder to prepare on the road," he explains, saying that his favorite part of the process is sitting around beforehand watching the highlights -- such as Clayton Kershaw's return to the Dodgers after an injury Tuesday -- and bouncing ideas with his co-hosts. "We're well aware of how lucky we are to have this job!"
Whether at a ball park or a star-filled bash, when it is noisy, "the biggest challenge is the producer communicating with us because sometimes it’s hard to hear...but sometimes we pretend we can’t hear them," admits Ravech.
"Trying to balance a Baseball Tonight show and the premiere of the movie is a juggling act to make sure we get it right because people are tuning in to ESPN to watch baseball. But at least it is a movie about baseball and the star is a big fan," he says, referring to Hamm's die-hard obsession with the St. Louis Cardinals.
That star later actually joined Ravech and Larkin onstage to host the show before facing the flood of reporters and flashing photographers on the green carpet. Hamm also announced that he will be a guest analyst May 11 for Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN when the show travels to Pittsburgh for the Pirates game against his beloved Cardinals.
Million Dollar Arm tells the true life story of J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent looking for the next big thing in baseball in India by launching a reality show competition among the millions of kids playing cricket there, prompting him to bring back two 18-year-olds who had never seen a baseball glove -- or a TV -- before and didn't speak a word of English.
"The movie is about so many things, it is not just a sports movie -- it is about love, family, growing up -- just like Rocky was not just a sports movie, neither was Bull Durham," says Ravech.
Larkin actually went to India last year as part of the Obama administration's broader objective to encourage youth participation in sport, and got firsthand experience of some of the Third World conditions.
"The portrayal [in the film] is pretty spot-on -- there aren’t any sports facilities or equipment, but it is an untapped market so you try to rustle up the enthusiasm of people and teach them how to play the game."
Surprisingly, although baseball isn't popular there yet, "there were a lot of female softball payers and more female involvement in a leadership standpoint," but there also were "cultural issues in terms of who they could talk to," he explains.
"A woman was our lead person but the guys we were dealing with wouldn’t address her because that is not in their culture. The country is so spread out and so far away from having any real organization," he adds.
"That was why the only way to pick talent from there is to do a program like [Bernstein's reality show] Million Dollar Arm. I assume after the movie comes out there will be more interest in baseball there, but it’s a cricket country and they are crazy about it, as that’s how they grew up. The baseball community is in the infant stages," he reveals. "You can't find a baseball there, you can't even find a glove."
"Baseball is one of the few sports where a story like this can actually happen," Kurkjian went on to explain. "I have about 25 stories of players who came out of nowhere and ended up making it in the major leagues, from Mike Piazza coming out of the 62nd round of the draft, to a guy at Baylor who was on the football team's marching band and his trombone crushed, so he decided to try out for the baseball team and is now in the Hall of Fame," he laughs.
"So the track to the big leagues is often different to that in other sports and crazy things like this can happen."
Million Dollar Arm, also starring Suraj Sharma, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Lake Bell and Arkin, opens in theaters nationwide May 16.