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ESPN SERIES GOES DEEP INTO THE PAST; REVIVES HOME RUN DERBY.

Byline: Tom Hoffarth The Media

It's the middle of February in Las Vegas, so the brisk wind whipping out and the smell of rain in the air might mean snow isn't far away. Even so, more than 8,500 folks who paid $15 a ticket are packed into Triple-A ballpark Cashman Field just to see a bunch of guys smack the bejesus out of batting-practice baseballs in a made-for-TV event.

``Mark McGwire told me he thought it was great so many fans came out,'' said ESPN baseball executive producer Tim Scanlan, ``but he said, `If you really wanted to do it like the old show, you'd have an empty stadium.' ''

Now that would just be sacrilegious.

In many ways, ESPN's production of the ``Big League Challenge'' (starting Monday at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN2) can't duplicate the simple hokeyness of ``Home Run Derby'' from 1959. To watch that series now, it's like an eerie episode of ``The Twilight Zone'' but a priceless piece of baseball history as well.

Filmed in black and white at a barren Wrigley Field in Los Angeles that no longer exists, the host might as well have been Rod Serling instead of the star-struck Mark Scott, who sat at a little table and, for whatever reason, kept a thick baseball record book by his microphone.

But the way he brought out these young versions of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, new L.A. Dodgers Duke Snider and Gil Hodges at the end of their careers, plus all the other sluggers of the day such as Frankie Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Rocky Colavito competing in a head-to-head home run-hitting contest. That can't be duplicated.

ESPN's intent for this updated version of powerball is to maintain the spirit of that show but inject modern technology to make the competition seem more alive - which includes adding the ``studio audience'' of fans whose oohs and aahs are as significant as the computerized graphics that measure the distance of these rocket shots.

``We want to show that in 2000, this is how far that series has come,'' said Scanlan, who oversees ESPN's baseball coverage. ``That was our mandate. It was a competition and people wanted to see Mays vs. Aaron. But they didn't have things like aerial coverage. We brought all of the ESPN toys to this production and you'll see all of them.''

That means instead of a couple of stagnant cameras, there will be 17, including one in front of the pitching mound and in the opposite batters' box. There's also ESPN standards such as MaskCam, Bat Track and wireless mikes for each participant.

Over Valentine's Day weekend last month, it was McGwire, Barry Bonds, Shawn Green, Mike Piazza, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Andruw Jones, who volunteered to crank it up for a tournament, which raised money for the MLBPA's Players Trust for Children charitable foundation.

Sammy Sosa also came but couldn't compete because of an illness that put him in the hospital on the morning of the event. Ken Griffey Jr. was scheduled, too, but his trade from Seattle to Cincinnati went down two days before the taping and he backed out.

Back in 1959, the winner of each nine-inning match was given a $2,000 prize and advanced to the next show. The loser got $1,000, and if anyone hit three homers in a row, there was a $500 bonus. Aaron ended up making the most appearances, six, on the 26-episode series and had $13,500 to show for it. The Milwaukee Braves star used it to buy his dad a grocery store back home in Mobile, Ala.

In this go-around, there's no individual financial reward for winning, but it is a tournament. All preliminary matches were five innings so that they didn't have to be edited down too much. The nine-inning finale on March 31 is an hour show.

The players were seeded based on last season's home-run production. The top four - McGwire, Sosa (replaced by Andruw Jones), Chipper Jones and Palmeiro - had first-round byes.

The original series ended after one year because Scott, who was also the executive producer, died of a heart attack at age 45. The shows sat in an MGM/UA vault in Culver City until someone offered them to ESPN, and they were aired at midnight in November of 1988 to fill in programming holes. The public reaction, in part, helped push the series to be replayed and sparked the creation of the Classic Sports Network, which was eventually bought by ESPN's parent company, Cap Cities, in 1996 and renamed ESPN Classic.

Aside from the now popular All-Star game exhibitions, there have been several attempts since the late '80s to bring back a home run derby TV show. ABC once put McGwire and Canseco, then teammates in Oakland, in an empty Dodger Stadium to tape a competition. McGwire and Bonds also did one for a regional cable TV show in Arizona years ago.

But because of the red tape of possible appearance fees and player availability, this is the first time a series this large has been regenerated. It's due mostly to the efforts of the MLBPA and its relationship with ESPN over the last few years of covering the ``Players Choice Awards'' show in November.

For ``Big League Challenge'' host Gary Thorne, the challenge was to recreate the relaxed atmosphere of the original series without looking so stiff on camera.

``You want to see the players relate to each other, like a pickup basketball game with that `aw shucks' feeling,'' said Thorne. ``The guys really enjoyed themselves. It amazed me that it came through. They were having a great time just seeing how far they could hit one after watching the other guy do it. I don't think you saw that in the original show.''

So since it's all been taped and people actually saw it, how does the 2000 version of ``Home Run Derby'' turn out? For those who don't know, we won't tell too much.

Canseco provides most of the highlights, including a reunion against McGwire that goes extra innings (airing March 24) and hitting a memorable shot in the final that goes well beyond the 474-foot scoreboard, over a building and bounces onto a highway 650 feet away, where it hits a van that's moving and causes the driver to stop.

Then there's the first sighting of Green, the new Dodger who brought along childhood friend Ben Strack to be his personal pitcher. Green smacks one over a video screen and off an 185-foot light tower in right field.

``If you get in a groove, it's OK,'' Green said on how difficult it is to produce home runs on demand for a TV show. ``And there's always pressure when there's people watching.''

That kind of pressure wasn't there for Ernie Banks, who had just come off back-to-back MVP seasons with the Chicago Cubs, when he competed in the original show.

``There was no one in the stands and I liked that. It was so quiet,'' said Banks, who ESPN brought back to be an analyst for Monday's first show (with subsequent shows using Piazza as the analyst).

``You may not believe it, but it's true - I didn't even realize they were filming the show. You didn't notice cameras like you do today. But we did get the feeling at that time that somehow, TV was going to play a part of baseball's future.''

BIG LEAGUE CHALLENGE

The lineup for the 12-player ``Big League Challenge,'' a head-to-head home-run hitting tournament that begins Monday on ESPN2 (each episode at 2:30 p.m.):

Monday: Jose Canseco vs. Mike Piazza

Tuesday: Nomar Garciaparra vs. Manny Ramirez

Wednesday: Barry Bonds vs. Shawn Green

Thursday: Jason Giambi vs. Alex Rodriguez

March 24: Jose Canseco vs. Mark McGwire

March 27: Nomar Garciaparra vs. Chipper Jones

March 28: Andruw Jones vs. Shawn Green

March 29: Alex Rodriguez vs. Rafael Palmeiro

March 30: Andruw Jones vs. Rafael Palmeiro

March 31: Jose Canseco vs. Chipper Jones

March 31: Jose Canseco vs. Rafael Palmeiro (3 p.m. final)

HOME RUN DERBY

ESPN Classic will run 15 episodes in a row from the 1959 ``Home Run Derby'' series Saturday starting at 7 a.m. The matchups:

7 a.m.: Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays

7:30 a.m.: Ernie Banks vs. Mickey Mantle

8 a.m.: Harmon Killebrew vs. Mickey Mantle

8:30 a.m.: Rocky Colavito vs. Harmon Killebrew

9 a.m.: Ken Boyer vs. Harmon Killebrew

9:30 a.m.: Hank Aaron vs. Ken Boyer

10 a.m.: Duke Snider vs. Hank Aaron

10:30 a.m.: Wally Post vs. Hank Aaron

11 a.m.: Dick Stuart vs. Wally Post

11:30 a.m.: Frank Robinson vs. Dick Stuart

Noon: Bob Cerv vs. Frank Robinson

12:30 p.m.: Willie Mays vs. Bob Allison

1 p.m.: Gil Hodges vs. Willie Mays

1:30 p.m.: Ernie Banks vs. Gil Hodges

2 p.m.: Jackie Jensen vs. Ernie Banks

(Note: Other participants in the series were Al Kaline, Gus Triandos, Eddie Mathews and Jim Lemon.)

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- color) Dodger Shawn Green and former Dodger Mike Piazza participated in the new ``Big League Challenge,'' a home-run contest that ESPN will begin televising next week.

Courtesy/ESPN

(2) no caption (Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and sportscaster)

(3) no caption (Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays)

Box: BIG LEAGUE CHALLENGE/HOME RUN DERBY (see text)
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Copyright 2000, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 17, 2000
Words:1585
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