It's far from a new innovation for a sports TV broadcast to stick a microphone on an athlete and use their sound to enhance the viewing experience. We've had "Sounds of the Game" and similar segments during games for years. But there's something different and incredibly authentic about using a player's live audio, and this has become much more common in the last few years.
Hot mics don't always work, of course. Players might curse on live TV, or breathe so loudly the viewer can't hear anything else. But in a comparatively laid-back sport like baseball, having players be a part of the show can liven up the many dead moments in a game. That's what ESPN was striving for when going "All-Access" with Cubs stars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and it worked wonders.
The fun started in the first inning, with Bryant at the plate and Rizzo on deck. Bryant said "now I'm tired" after lining the first pitch foul and having to run back to home plate, and joked that he hated running out infield pop-ups.
Rizzo provided some incredible moments in the third inning, when he said he was doing some "math" to decide what pitch was coming but still had "no idea." He snuck in a shot at the Astros' trash can-banging scandal, then correctly predicted a fastball and laced it up the middle for the most entertaining single of the spring.
When the Cubs were in the field, the duo had a chance to joke with each other from across the infield. ESPN's Jon Sciambi called out Bryant for not wearing the Cubs' spring training hat, which was met with a quip that he wears what he wants. And after the ballplayers-turned-analysts left the game in the middle innings, they continued to provide some laughs in the dugout (with help from manager David Ross).
If you watched the whole thing, you laughed a lot and learned a lot. And you probably came away a bigger fan of Bryant and Rizzo than you were before.
This is the best-case scenario for a network that decides to mic up players. Bryant and Rizzo provided the kind of humor and insight that could only come from players on the field. It worked so well (and was only attempted in the first place) because it was a spring training game, but it'll be interesting to monitor how much more of this we see going forward. FOX does it during the All-Star Game, but it mics up several different players for an inning each during the contest. Maybe ESPN tries it with Bryant and/or Rizzo during a regular-season game, or maybe someone like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper agrees to it.
Baseball season is LONG, and the TV broadcasts can begin to feel monotonous in a hurry. Even this approach could grow old if it becomes commonplace. But this turned a meaningless spring training game into must-watch TV, and it might provide a blueprint for how MLB can better market its stars to a national audience.