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Published: 4/13/2011

Baseball swings for stardom

BY MARTIN MILLER
LOS ANGELES TIMES

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- On a sunny, spring-training morning, the Freak (Tim Lincecum), the Beard (Brian Wilson), the thong guy (Aubrey Huff), and the rest of the camera magnets on the World Series champion San Francisco Giants were clowning through warmups in anticipation of an afternoon game.

But as far as one television crew was concerned, the real story was taking place just off the Giants' pristine field at Scottsdale Stadium. On a hushed stairwell behind the visitors' dugout, Marc Kroon was being interviewed -- and not about his chances of earning a bullpen spot as a 38-year-old reliever who threw for much of the last decade in Japan.

The Bronx native was being asked about his father, who has struggled with substance-abuse problems. Kroon's father largely had abandoned him but would show up periodically and ask for money. Once after another long absence, in an effort to reconcile with his father, Marc brought his two young sons to meet their grandfather for the first time -- and again, his father begged for money. Would Kroon ever reach out again to his dad? No. He'll only go to his funeral.

"It doesn't bother me to talk about stuff like that on camera," Kroon said later. "It is what it is, but the Japanese didn't ask questions like that."

Kroon's poignant tale is not intended for a Japanese audience but an American one much more accustomed to the personal details of failure and triumph, of fame and celebrity.

His comeback story will be wrapped into a joint TV project between MLB Productions and Showtime that promises an insider's look at a champion baseball team. The program, called The Franchise: A Season With the San Francisco Giants, will air in a half-hour sneak preview Wednesday, and this summer it will run as an hour-long series for at least six episodes on the premium-cable network.

The show seeks to capitalize on the national obsession for sports programming, big pieces of which are expanding, not fragmenting as are most things in the new digital world. The most compelling example is the National Football League, which recently logged its most-watched season ever on TV and thanks to the Super Bowl set a record for the largest audience in U.S. history.

Sports reality programming aims to transfer the on-field drama off the field. The franchises and players are poised and ready and only require easy-to-conceal cameras to start recording in the front offices, locker rooms and sometimes, even the bedroom. Whether it's football receiver Chad Ochocinco's VH-1 reality dating show The Ultimate Catch or HBO's documentary-style 24/7 series that has focused by turns on the NHL, NASCAR, and boxing, the burgeoning genre has been successful in attracting new fans, while also often bolstering the cachet of the networks.

"There's a reason why Dancing With the Stars always has an athlete," said Brad Adgate, a vice president of research at Horizon Media. Of course, added Adgate, baseball is not football. It still might be known as the national pastime, but more than a few find the leisurely pace of a nine-inning game beyond tedious. "As with wild-card teams and expanded playoffs, it's baseball once again trying to catch football," he said. "We'll have to see how well this works."

To win a championship as the Giants did last year, immense drive and perseverance are required. And perhaps just as much competitive instinct is needed to get such a show off the ground. Both Showtime and Major League Baseball are locked in intense battles for market share, not to mention prestige, against rivals that are at the top of their game. For Showtime, The Franchise is in part an answer to HBO's highly regarded 10-year-old Hard Knocks series about a preseason NFL team.

HBO's choice last year of the New York Jets scored big for the premium-cable channel. While averaging an impressive 4.4-million viewers per episode, up roughly 30 percent from the previous season, "Hard Knocks" catapulted brash and uncensored Coach Rex Ryan into media stardom.

For baseball, which has already aired a pair of respected but little-watched reality-based series on its own MLB Network, the venture is clearly designed to tap into a broader audience and burnish the brand. But baseball executives don't much care for comparisons to pro football, and certainly not when it comes to specific programs such as The Franchise and Hard Knocks.



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