'Game of the Week' lineup expands for full season

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NEW YORK -- When Fox Sports airs a Major League Baseball game on Saturday afternoon, it will embark on showing a "Game of the Week" for the entire regular season. That hasn't happened on a broadcast network since 1989.

Fox has carried a Saturday game -- previously a split between an East Coast game and a West Coast game that starts three hours later -- since it inked a rights deal in the mid-1990s. But the new contract, announced at last year's All-Star Game, let Fox walk away from the Divisional Series and one League Championship Series and gave them a Game of the Week beginning with the first week of the season.

Saturday's games will feature the New York Mets vs. the Atlanta Braves, the Minnesota Twins vs. the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers vs. the San Francisco Giants. This week, and in all subsequent weeks this season, the games will begin at 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT.

"We're finally getting it right and starting it at the beginning of the season," Fox Sports president Ed Goren said Wednesday. In years past, Fox was willing to start the telecasts in April, but for several reasons, including affiliate concerns, it wasn't possible.

"It's something that we've wanted from the get-go," Goren said.

Now, the first pitch each week will come at 3:55 p.m. ET, and under most cases (barring long games hours or rain delays, for instance), the East Coast affiliates will be done with baseball by about 7 p.m., so they can have an hour of local programming before the start of primetime.

Fox analyst Tim McCarver acknowledged that it has been a while since there has been early-season baseball on the broadcast networks. He worked with ABC on "Monday Night Baseball," but that didn't have a full schedule, and CBS' 1990-93 baseball telecasts began in April but then took about six weeks off.

"I love cool-weather baseball, and this gives Joe (Buck) and me a chance to do games with a fresh start, to see the teams in April and then also in September and October," McCarver said.

While the game is financially healthy, Fox hasn't seen the kind of ratings it would like for postseason baseball for almost a decade -- with the exception of 2004's Boston Red Sox championship run.

Goren said recent teams were as competitive as ever, with a great many given a legitimate chance to win, but that ratings are dependent on a six- or seven-game World Series, something that hasn't happened since the 2002 Anaheim Angels-San Francisco Giants matchup.

"The number of games you get in a series has a dramatic effect on the overall ratings," Goren said.

But he also felt that, unlike when he was growing up, the World Series hasn't been must-see TV.

"In some regard, ratings are driven by matchups, and the fluctuation (of teams) from one year to the next is more dramatic than we would care to see," Goren said.

One thing remains the same: the Chicago Cubs. While Tribune, the Cubs' parent company, spent big bucks in the off-season, many observers don't think they can even make it to the playoffs, let alone win the World Series. If the Cubs don't win the Series by next year, it will be 100 years since the last time they did.

New "MLB on Fox" analyst Mark Grace joked that as a longtime player for the Cubs, he is partly to blame for that drought.

"I think that's unfair," Grace said of the Cubs. "Anybody can have a bad century."
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