- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2007

The early rounds of the NFL and NBA drafts have become appointment viewing, but ESPN2 will be jumping into new waters today when it televises Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft.

The sports network will air the first 30 picks, complete with live analysis, video clips and interviews. Coverage will be based at the Wide World of Sports Complex near Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

ESPN executives concede they are entering uncharted territory and acknowledge that buzz over baseball’s draft has never reached the level of the NFL or NBA selections, where early-round picks can become stars overnight. Part of that stems from the nature of baseball, which develops drafted players through farm systems before bringing them up to the major leagues. A general lack of enthusiasm about college and high school baseball also has played a role.

“Baseball is really the only sport that develops its own talent,” said Steve Phillips, a former general manager for the New York Mets who will be part of ESPN2’s draft coverage. “You’re not drafting for need in the same way. … You don’t really get the same emotional response from fans because it’s more of a wait-and-see.”

There are indications, however, that players are appearing in the majors sooner. Tim Lincecum, the top pick of the San Francisco Giants in last year’s draft, began pitching with the big league club in May. The New York Mets’ Joe Smith and the Seattle Mariners’ Brandon Morrow joined their team’s bullpen this spring after being drafted in 2006.

“If you look at the last few years, I don’t think you have to wait for three, four or five years until they get to the big leagues,” said Jay Levy, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s baseball coverage.

ESPN executives and producers said they have no real sense of how many people will tune in. The NBA Draft and NFL Draft are among the highest-rated non-game sports programs annually.

“I think we obviously have to maintain reasonable expectations here,” said Len DeLuca, ESPN’s senior vice president for programming and acquisitions. “It’s a test, and a way to challenge ourselves to try new things for a partner as good as Major League Baseball.”

Said Levy: “This is a case of first impression. We have no baseline.”

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig is expected to announce most of the first-round picks, just as NBA commissioner David Stern does at his draft. Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations, also will attend. There will be five minutes between each selection.

Karl Ravech, the host of ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” will anchor the broadcast, with Phillips and analyst Peter Gammons providing commentary. Matthew Berry and Keith Law of ESPN.com, Jim Callis of Baseball America and Dave Rawnsley of the Web site pgcrosschecker.com also will offer analysis.

During the draft, ESPN2 plans to present highlights of the five major league games going on this afternoon. The entire draft also will stream live on ESPN360, the network’s broadband video service.

Potential draftees waiting in person at the event include high school third baseman Josh Vitters, Missouri State pitcher Ross Detwiler and Phillippe Aumount, a high school pitcher from Quebec. Other players will be interviewed live via phone.