Apr 20, 2011, 3:00 PM EDT
Last week, the premium cable network Showtime offered viewers a sneak peek at the reality series it has been working on since last October with the World Champion San Francisco Giants.
When plans for the series were first announced this past winter, it came as great news for the baseball-watching world. Finally, something in-depth and beautiful was going to be produced about our sport.
We’ve seen HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which shines a light on one NFL team each preseason, tracking players both popular and anonymous in stunning quality. Every frame of “Hard Knocks” is a delight. The soundtrack is always perfect, the drama feels impeccably genuine, and the stories make you care — truly and deeply care — about a group of professional athletes who are usually so well media trained that real feelings don’t get out.
HBO’s “24/7” series leading up to the NHL’s Winter Classic was a landmark in sports television programming. Combining the visuals and sounds of “Hard Knocks” with a bruising and non-stop action sport like hockey, it was a program that reached beyond entertainment. “24/7” made hockey cool again to the casual sports fan.
Now it’s baseball’s turn.
Showtime isn’t HBO. In most ways, it’s merely HBO’s awkward second cousin. So there was reason for speculation that Showtime’s version of a sports documentary series might not be as crisp or impactful.
About 10 minutes in to “The Franchise,” that worry is carried away. Early shots feature manager Bruce Bochy lighting a stogie in a dark room, Barry Zito stepping out of an Audi convertible, and outfielder Andres Torres throwing blocks of stone and running up farming hills in his native Puerto Rico.
We also meet Freddy Sanchez’s family. The second baseman has been with his wife since high school, and now he’s throwing pitches to his son in a massive mansion foyer. Sanchez’s wife can’t hold back tears as the topic of the World Series is brought up. “We almost lived in our car,” she says, recalling the old days.
There’s a lot of Brian Wilson, but he doesn’t dominate most of the plot lines and it seems as though he might be taking a more honest and less goofy approach with the Showtime filmmakers.
At one point he tells the camera:
“When you’re a young pup coming up, you have meetings about media. And controlling the media. Dealing with the media the past five years, I’ve learned to hone in on what kind of message I’d like to send. Even if it’s in a sailor’s outfit. You think, ‘Oh wow, here goes again. Being crazy.’ But maybe he’s just being smart.”
Wilson is being smart. He has only been an elite major league closer for three years, and yet he’s made himself a household name. Relievers don’t typically get invited to be regular talk show guests.
Wilson also has it right about controlling the message. Baseball fans will often form opinions on players based on the doses of sound bytes they hear after a win or loss. We think we know these guys, but those quotes typically carry about an ounce of authenticity, maybe less.
Authentic is Brandon Belt, a 23-year-old from Nacogdoches, Texas, trying to break camp with the big league club for the first time. When Bochy finally has Belt in his office at the end of the preview episode and tells the youngster that he has made the Opening Day roster*, the kid is thrown. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, shedding tears in front of coaches and front office members whom he has been trying to impress for going on three years. Belt slowly gets up out of the chair in front of Bochy’s desk and makes his way toward the office door that leads back to the players’ part of the clubhouse. Then he stalls. He doesn’t want his teammates to see that he’s been crying. Bochy knows this situation well and tells Belt in that Jeff Bridges-like tone of his, “You can take your time, you can hang with me a while. If you want a beer, grab a beer.”
Belt has a seat on the couch, holding a can of Bud Light. “I don’t even know why I’m crying right now,” he mutters, hand covering face. “You should be, it’s a big moment,” Bochy responds.
The preview only runs a half-hour long, but you get the feeling that this series is going to be pretty special. It officially begins Wednesday, July 16 and will presumably run through the end of the baseball season.
*Belt hit just .192 with one home run and a .569 OPS across his first 60 plate appearances and was demoted to Triple-A Fresno on Wednesday afternoon.
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