LOS ANGELES — Alex Rodriguez was sitting in his seat in the Fox Sports studio, camera tuned on him, making the kind of surprisingly good live TV he makes these days.
His phone buzzed. It was a text from Charles Barkley.
“I’m loving the show,” it read.
When Barkley — a man who has built a reputation for himself as a sometimes-grumpy, always-honest TV star in his own right — likes what you’re doing, something has to be going right.
And it has. Throughout the MLB postseason, we’ve seen A-Rod transform before our eyes. As one-fourth of the MLB on Fox pre- and post-game studio show, Rodriguez has been showing the baseball-watching world a new side. He’s smart. He’s insightful. He pokes fun at himself. And perhaps most amazingly, he doesn’t come off like a guy who was the most controversial player in MLB for a decade.
He’s — dare we say it? — likable.
The same goes for co-star Pete Rose, who isn’t all those things A-Rod is, but is a scene stealer in his own ways. Rose is more like a wind-up toy, armed with hot takes, pointed in the direction of the audience and let go. He’s spontaneous. He’s zany. He rags on his co-hosts. And not amazingly at all, he has almost zero filter. He, too, is likable.
This week, when the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians meet in the World Series, starting with Game 1 Tuesday night, A-Rod and Rose will be in the forefront of Fox’s TV coverage. And more people will learn about Fox Sports’ great TV trick of the 2016 postseason — it turned two of baseball’s most famous villains into great TV.
Pregame coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1, moves over to Fox at 7:30 p.m. ET, leading to first pitch at 8 p.m. For Games 4 and 5 on Saturday and Sunday, the show starts at 7 p.m. ET on Fox and runs for an hour. After each game, they’ll host a short postgame show on Fox then continue for another 30-40 minutes on FS1.
The pairing of A-Rod and Pete Rose, on its face, seems like a live TV trainwreck waiting to happen. Last year when Fox announced the two of them, along with Hall of Famer Frank Thomas and veteran studio host Kevin Burkhardt, would be handling their postseason coverage many people tuned in just to the see the carnage. Turns out, A-Rod was actually quite good and Pete Rose, while stuck in his old-school ways, kept you guessing and, sometimes, laughing.
When Fox got the group of them got back together again this year, it changed from a possible trainwreck to the type of live TV where you tune in to see what’s going to happen next. What’s followed is viral moments wrapped up in insightful baseball talk like we’ve never seen before. This isn’t another plain baseball talk show with interchangeable analysts. It’s not another postgame show that you simply leave on after the game. It’s something you seek out.
It’s more in the key of TNT’s uber-successful “Inside the NBA,” where Barkley sits next to Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith these days on what’s the most successful sports studio show around. But Fox is doing it with two guys carrying more baggage than a 737.
Making Shaq likable? Easy. Shaq’s been likable since he was hanging on rims at LSU. Making A-Rod likable? Therein lies a challenge. But it’s happening live in front of our eyes. Just look around Twitter when he’s on-air and it’s obvious. This A-Rod, people like.
“It feels good, I gotta admit,” Rodriguez says. “The fact that some people think I’m doing a good job or they’re getting some education, some knowledge, it makes me feel better than when it’s the other way, that’s for sure.”
• • •
Welcome to one of the production meetings for Fox’s postseason show. Before every pregame show, the four stars and the group of producers who guide them behind the scenes meet casually to go over the talking points for that day’s game two hours before first pitch. On this particular day, it’s Game 3 of the National League Championship Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs.
Rose sits on one side of the room. Thomas, Burkhardt and A-Rod sit in a line in the middle. Between them, there are 1,377 homers, 9,839 hits, six MVP awards and 36 All-Star appearances.
The show’s producers Royce Dickerson and Jonathan Kaplan, along with Bardia Shah-Rais, Fox Sports’ vice president of production, are peppering them with questions. Everything from what they think of Joe Maddon’s lineup construction that day to what they did on their day off. Dickerson and Kaplan are the ones tossing out topics and Shah-Rais is the one asking, “Why?” when one of his analysts makes a point but doesn’t back it up enough.
When the disagreements or zingers start flying, they interrupt: “Save it, save it for TV.”
One question is tossed to A-Rod, but he doesn’t want to answer right away. Instead, he asks that they come back to him while he goes over some data. In an age where many sports commentators spout half-cocked opinions, it’s both surprising and commendable that A-Rod won’t just spit out something without first doing some research.
“The first day he came in, he called and asked if I would come in early to work with him,” Burkhardt said. “I was like, wow, a guy like him, he could come in here and be A-Rod and wing it and get through this. Let’s face it, you see it on TV all the time. But he worked from the get-go.”
If you’re tuning in expecting one thing out of A-Rod, it’s the other. After years of being criticized for being too guarded and robotic as a player, for always trying to say the right thing but not giving any actual insight into who he is, he’s proving himself to be a different person — a real person. And he’s doing it in relatively quick time, considering he hasn’t even done 20 shows yet.
“Everybody in the world is getting to see that he’s human,” Thomas says. “When they think A-Rod, they think rock star, they think he’s so private no one gets in his world. He’s really, really cut loose and showed that side people haven’t seen of him.”
When it’s Rose’s turn to talk, he’s dissecting a hitter’s splits against left-handed pitching. He’s not looking at anything, not a phone or a computer screen. “What’s he hit, .230 against lefties?” Rose asks out loud. A quick search from producers shows Rose was only .002 off.
“I think what a lot of people don’t understand about Pete Rose,” A-Rod says, “he’s got the mind of a hedge-fund manager. His ability to retain numbers is unbelievable. The most remarkable part of our whole entire show is that I have mountains of notes and he’s never written a note. He doesn’t even have a pen. Notice on the show he has nothing in front of him. His recall is unbelievable. Which, if you think about it, is what made him such a great hitter. In an era when there was no video and very little scouting reports, his ability to recall and have this photographic memory — I can tell by watching him on the desk what made him so great on the field.”
Rose is very obviously the Charles Barkley of this show. He’s proudly old school and liable to inspire eye rolls from some viewers and attaboys from others. The one thing he’s not, though, is contrived or predictable. After the pregame show, they all meet in the green room to eat dinner, watch the game and prep for the postgame show. The idea is to latch on to the organic conversation between the group.
With Pete, the conversation never stops — whether he’s talking to everyone or no one. He talks about batting helmets and gold chains and back-in-my-day takes about head-first slides or jokes about Yasiel Puig hitting the cut-off man.
“They don’t have cut-off men in Cuba,” he says to no one in particular, a line that eventually ends up in the postgame show. “They cut them off at the border.”
“That’s just Pete,” Thomas says. “You know Comedy Central is coming.”
There aren’t many times when Thomas — a 6-foot-5 hulk of a man with 521 homers and a big personality — is the third most interesting dude in the room, but here, that’s his role and he plays it well.
Out of the three of them, Thomas has the most TV experience. He started doing broadcast work in 2007 and moved to Fox in 2014. He works about 50 days per year with them now, between working on the “MLB Whiparound” on FS1 and other duties.
He’s personable but commanding, smooth but still authoritative. He’s the type to chit-chat with behind-the-scenes people and still get his own lunch from the Fox cafeteria. When he’s around Rose, though, he’ll also jump in the conversation with a zinger. The two of them make good dance partners on TV, which is one of the things that makes the show work so well.
“I got in the habit last year where even when I agreed with Frank I disagreed with him,” Rose said. “I have people all the time that say, ‘Why you don’t like Frank?’ I love Frank. If you’re having fun, people watching you are having fun. If you’re sitting up here and you’re dull you know what they’ll do? Change the channel.”
The man tasked with being the ringmaster is Burkhardt. He’s also the quarterback or the point guard, depending on who you ask. Everybody agrees: He’s the glue of the show, the unsung MVP. He worked for SNY for seven years, then jumped to Fox where his duties beyond baseball include NFL games and college basketball. But this might be his most adventurous gig.
“The biggest thing for me is earning their trust, which I think I have by now,” Burkhardt said. “Trust in terms of not putting them in a bad position, not asking them something they don’t know how to answer.”
But that’s just one part. The other is managing big personalities and keeping control when things go off the rails, because with Rose around, they inevitably will.
“I host a show,” Burkhardt said, “and I have no idea what the hell is going to happen next.”
• • •
Pete Rose leans in and whispers, like he’s about to tell you a secret.
“I have a lot of knowledge about baseball,” he says.
It’s something people might forget because these days when you think about Rose, you think about gambling or whether he’ll get in the Hall of Fame. But being on TV allows Rose a vehicle to show everyone just how knowledgeable he is about hitting.
Look no further than a recent clip from the behind the scenes of the show that went viral. It was six minutes and 26 seconds of Rose giving Thomas and A-Rod tips on hitting. It wasn’t scripted. Wasn’t planned. It was totally organic and it’s an example of how great this Fox trio can be.
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 21, 2016
The original plan was for A-Rod to ask Rose one question about hitting to create a 15-second bumper for the show. They kept talking and the cameras kept rolling and as of Tuesday morning, the video had more than 11 million views on Facebook. The magic came in off-the-cuff Pete Rose talking about hitting to A-Rod and Thomas the way a father would.
“You don’t manage Pete,” says Shah-Rais, who is the main man in the control room during broadcasts. “That’s what makes him so great. We’d be doing him and the viewer a disservice if we managed him. We want all the guys to be themselves. There’s no reason to tell Pete, ‘Look into the camera, give us 15 seconds and move on.’ No, it’s like ‘Yeah, look off into space when Kevin’s talking.’ Just be yourself. Be genuine.”
That’s how this show has succeeded. It’s authentic. It’s not overly scripted. The vision was, according to Shah-Rais, to create a show that had the feel of “Inside the NBA” or “Fox NFL Sunday,” where the personalities were talking to each other instead of talking at the viewer, so people at home felt like they were eavesdropping on a great conversation about sports.
People responded. After Game 2 of the NLCS, Pete Rose was trending on Twitter for no specific reason. There was no great moment or highlight everyone was talking about. It was just one of those nights where you watch Pete and had to say something, positive, negative or otherwise.
For all the moments that get talked about in the production meetings and appear on air later that night, there’s another side: the show has to be flexible enough for Rose to do something completely out of left field and it has to be creative enough to immediately enhance those moments.
Example: Last week, Rose randomly said something about the Cubs going to the Cincinnati Zoo, which made absolutely zero sense since they were playing in L.A. The jokes and jabs flew quickly, but the behind-the-scenes team came back with funny Photoshops of the Cubs in the Cincinnati Zoo a few minutes later.
What might really make the show work the most is how much it goes against what decades of baseball has made you believe. That Pete Rose is a horrible person and that A-Rod is a monster. The undertone of the show challenges that very notion every night, whether it’s A-Rod making very intelligent points about baseball or completely making fun of himself.
There was a skit last week where A-Rod was taking on various behind-the-scenes jobs, like putting make-up on his co-hosts or operating the cameras. At one point, he cracked, “Wide shot on A-Rod, fifth all-time in most strikeouts.”
“Shocked, shocked,” Shah-Rais says about A-Rod poking fun at himself. “When Pete would get on him, I was worried what his reaction would be, but he loves it. He says, ‘Have Pete keep ragging me. I want to come back at him.’ From the outside looking in, it’s like here’s this guy who’s a little sensitive, who played in a bubble and doesn’t want to be messed with. He’s complete opposite.”
It’s hard to say whether this is A-Rod seizing a good opportunity to rehab his image or genuinely enjoying himself (or even a little bit of both), but just being a fly on the wall during his day, he seems to have fun being one of the guys. And if he changes the minds of some people watching at home, that’s not a bad outcome from his or Fox’s perspective.
“They can see that I don’t take myself too seriously,” A-Rod says. “I’m like a punching bag up there. They all give it to me and I absolutely love it.”
A-Rod is the wild card in whether the group continues. He’s just on for the postseason. Some people believe at age 41, he could still try to play next season even though he “retired” this past summer. He’s mum on what’s next beyond saying, “My main concern is to spend as much time with my daughters as possible.”
Nonetheless, Fox thinks it has something special on its hands with this group. It thinks it found the right mixture of personality and baseball wisdom and would definitely be interested in more A-Rod on TV, if that’s something he wants to do.
“We didn’t think it would be like this,” Shah-Rais says. “We thought the content would be good and it would interesting perspectives, but we didn’t think it would be that enjoyable for those guys and for the viewers.”
Just when you thought you could live the rest of your life thinking Pete Rose and A-Rod were two of baseball’s big villains, they go on TV and make you like them again.
More MLB coverage from Yahoo Sports: