The MLB Network went a long way toward establishing itself as a credible source of news over the weekend by responding quickly and thoroughly to reports that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003.
The new, league-owned cable channel didn’t break the story - that credit goes to Sports Illustrated’s Selena Roberts - but it served fans well by providing hours of analysis with no evident bias.
A lesser network might have downplayed the story as unsurprising, old or not meaningful. Instead, the network’s hosts and analysts showed little regard for how the news would reflect on the league.
“For the network to be credible, they need to cover any issue,” network spokesman Matt Bourne said. “This was obviously a major issue that impacted major league baseball, and they covered it appropriately.”
The report of Rodriguez’s steroid use as a member of the Texas Rangers broke Saturday morning, when MLB Network normally doesn’t have live programming. But Bourne said the month-old network was given a short amount of notice before the story broke, allowing studio hosts and analysts to appear live by midmorning. The network brought in top studio host Matt Vasgersian and its top analysts, Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac, and Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci.
By 2 p.m., decorated broadcast veteran Bob Costas was intervieing Roberts in studio. While MLB Network surely wanted to land an interview with Rodriguez - it was ESPN’s Peter Gammons who scored that one Monday - getting Roberts in the studio gave the network fresh information to discuss throughout the weekend.
And there was much to discuss. In addition to the issue of Rodriguez’s positive test, there was the allegation that Gene Orza of the players union may have tipped off Rodriguez that he was to be tested back in 2003. Furthermore, Costas was one of the first to inquire why the union didn’t destroy the supposedly anonymous test results after they were no longer needed. The union’s failure to immediately destroy those tests as planned allowed federal prosecutors to seize them as part of their own investigation.
“This is along the lines of Nixon not burning the tapes,” Costas said on the air.
Perhaps MLB Network’s greatest feat this past week was securing a horde of phone interviews with former players and general managers, including Texas Rangers adviser and former general manager John Hart and Jose Cruz Jr., a former teammate of Rodriguez’s. The network followed up with several of those executives and players after Rodriguez admitted to using a banned substance on Monday.
The big test for MLB Network now may be one that ESPN and other sports networks face: How much coverage does the steroid issue warrant if there is little new to report? Chances are MLB Network will move on to spring training news and coverage of the World Baseball Classic. But to maintain this new image as an unbiased outlet for baseball news, it must be careful not to place the steroid issue on the back burner.