Baseball on Five: Triumph and Tragedy in the Depths of British Night
For one glorious moment, let us be transported back to a year early in the new millennium. A simpler year, in a sweeter age. A year less cynical and more hospitable to magic. Say 2006, or 2008.
Late October. Chill in the air. Swift and murky days. Heavy, evocative nights. Elsewhere, people rest and slouch as is Sunday’s encouragement, drawing eye-burning warmth from familial chat and the living room fire. Normality reigns.
Yet within the breast of those sworn to the hardy fiefdom of British baseball, a wholly disproportionate and largely ineffable excitement stirs and whirs and purrs.
Shortly after one in the morning, that first, unmistakeable chord of the hair-raising soundtrack moans from the television. You sit up in bed, pulling at the duvet for additional comfort, careful not to wake the sleeping house. Now, you are full of adrenaline. Now, you are ready.
The sculpted face of Jonny Gould, the exquisite presenter of our beloved show, protrudes brightly from atop a tuxedo, as tradition dictates for Game One of the World Series. “Good evening, fellow baseball nuts,” he beams, for perhaps the 400th time and, for perhaps the 400th time, it sends a tingle down your spine and forms a ball in your throat.
Major League Baseball on Channel Five. A show unlike any other I have been fortunate to encounter, and unlike any I will see again. The longest-running show ever to be spawned by that station, it managed not only to top one million viewers on a meagre budget, but also assemble the most intelligent, affectionate, avuncular and deeply unforgettable cast of experts imaginable. It managed to make accessible, nay intrinsic to very wellbeing of thousands, a game of startling inactivity and nuance that unfurled an ocean away in the dead of British night.
What greater compliment can be accorded? What finer legacy can be bestowed? What more can be said? Baseball on Five was a community.
Memories of MLB on British terrestrial TV
This show was vital to my basic happiness as a child. Even now, as a conscious adult, I am rendered awestruck contemplating how it managed to be so many things and achieve so much with so comparatively little.
It was warm, charming and a source of dense companionship. It was razor sharp and inimitably precise at educating people about this complex game, but in the most laidback, relaxed and chilled manner possible. It was at once entertaining and awe-inspiringly informative. All seamless. All smooth. All so agreeable.
The show, which twice a week carried live broadcasts of a Major League game, gave me hour upon blissful hour of fulfilment, inspiration and joy. In the days before instant news at your fingertips, and before MLB TV worked without the dangling of a wireless router from an open window, Baseball on Five was an indispensable tool in the arsenal of any British fan of North American sports. It was our major source of baseball news, views and highlights, a sequestered treasure buried deep in the TV listings.
On many occasions, my adolescent week was so filled to brimming with baseball-y stuff that the prospect of a live game on Five rendered me almost euphoric. At times, I had read so many baseball books, watched so many baseball films and scoured so many baseball websites during a week that Baseball on Five became a mirage, daring me to indulge and explode into another stratosphere of fandom as a complete and utter baseball-dependent maniac.
How I fell in love with baseball
I discovered the show and, by extension the marvellous game of baseball, by accident in the autumn of 2004 while awaiting a late night Dutch football package from Five that never materialised due to the overrunning of a certain World Series Game 4 between the Cardinals and Red Sox.
I became a regular, enraptured, and truly fascinated viewer from that very point, aged ten or eleven. By twelve, I was hopelessly hooked, forced to invent ever more innovative ways of keeping myself awake undetected until 4.30 am with primary school in the morning.
Aside from the achingly stupendous displays of baseball, why was the show so wonderful, so mesmeric and so addictive? The camaraderie, the fellowship, the sense of belonging. The infectious enthusiasm and the personable nature transcendent of usual television shows.
If you watched it for any length of time, you will understand the indescribable, intangible burning of pleasure it evoked. If you did not watch? Well, this whole article seems a little stupid, doesn’t it?
The show had so many quirks and was far more natural, organic and human than any other sports programme. The purpose of Baseball on Five was not to sell advertising, flog merchandise or make money. Accordingly, the people involved were not mercenary, distant or robotic. Rather, the show’s sole aim, seemingly, was to educate people in, and entertain them with, baseball. Above all else, a love of the game pervaded.
Naturally, conveyed with such conviction and devotion, this message affected those watching. If you polled every British baseball fan in the land as to the genesis of their interest, I guarantee at least 98% would cite the humble show brought to life by Jonny Gould, Josh Chetwynd, Erik Jansen, David Lengel, Todd Macklin and the gang. Baseball on Five spurned a cult and moved a generation. To be a part of it is a great gift we should cherish forever.
Personally, I cannot thank that show, and those guys, enough for introducing to me a sport, hobby and passion that has become a central part of my life and career. Without the show, and without the excellence with which they conceived and delivered it, I never would have discovered baseball. And without baseball, I never would have discovered that books can be interesting, delightful and beguiling. And without that inspiration to read, I never would have encountered the works of Kahn, Angell, Shaughnessy, Gammons, Vecsey, Massarotti, Montville and so many other wonderful writers who so thrilled me with words. And without words, I would be entirely lost.
How Josh Chetwynd taught an entire nation to enjoy baseball
“I can easily say that Five was the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had,” says Chetwynd, conveying a similar sense of gratitude at his involvement in the classic show. “I’m a late night person by design, and I just loved the people and the work.”
“It was very different to reporting,” continues Josh, at one time or another involved in baseball as a player, coach, envoy, writer, journalist, presenter, historian, analyst and agent, “and certainly different to doing a live game, which I did at the World Series for the BBC. But the laid back nature and the pure fun we had is something I will always cherish.”
Josh, affectionately known as JC to thousands throughout Britain, occupied the Baseball on Five hot seat between 2001-03 and 2006-08. He was an absolute master at making the game accessible to the rookie fan and diehard addict alike. I still don’t know how he managed to keep everybody happy nearly all of the time.
“I was always aware that I was serving two different audiences: those who knew the game really well, and those who might be tuning in for the first time,” explains Chetwynd, a modest, smart and accommodating guy. “My goal was to never talk down to the audience, whether I was explaining the grip of a two-seam fastball or going over what exactly a balk was. I wanted to be clear but not patronising.”
Indeed, JC taught me more about baseball than anybody else. If you are a Brit reading this, you are likely of a similar viewpoint. He explained the fundamental minutiae for beginners and experts, without making it tedious or overwhelming for either. With Josh, much like baseball itself, there was always another layer of fact, history and trivia. For instance, he taught me not only the myriad of different pitches, but how, why and when a pitcher may elect to use them.
Over time, the show helped me know intimately practically every player in the big leagues. I can still recite, verbatim, the starting lineup of most every team throughout the 2008 season, a rare skill. Ultimately, Baseball on Five furnished me not only with casual enjoyment, but also an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game. In this respect, I regard the people behind the show, chiefly JC, as truly epic crusaders in the battle to expand and enrich America’s game on British shores.
The magical chemistry of Baseball on Five
Yet they never came across as pretentious, lofty or entitled. The mood was chilled, the ambiance tranquil. The guys had personality and idiosyncrasies. Jonny with his bouffant hair, Hawaiian shirts and comical grasp of fantasy baseball; Erik with his Expos-induced mourning and serial addiction to the most demonic of food; Davey Lengel with his superhuman commutes from Brooklyn that truly defied belief.
It wasn’t so much a community as a family, with everybody bringing something to the table.
“I really loved every member of the group,” recalls Chetwynd, more than a little mawkishly. “It was like family.
“Of course, Jonny Gould was centre of the universe. It is impossible not to love the man, even though he is amazingly self-absorbed and forgetful. Still, he’s charming beyond belief and, at his core, a very warm-hearted man.
“Erik Janssen has a fantastic, wry sense of humour. He would be in the control room trying to make us laugh. He is also very talented at what he does, but in an understated way, which always meant a laidback environment.
“David Lengel is truly one of the funniest people. When he took over for me for the year-and-half I went back to the states, people would tell me ‘you guys are so different!’ When I saw him on air for the first time, I totally understood. He puts it all out there and his demeanour and attitude is so funny. Off camera, he is incredibly giving and generous. He’s the type of guy who would really go to bat for his friends at the first word of a request.
“I also got to work with Mike Carlson, better known for his NFL work, and Mark Webster,” continues Chetwynd. “Both are great guys, albeit very different personalities.”
“Regardless of who I sat across from, I always thought there was a good chemistry. Primarily, because we were almost always having fun.”
Josh was quick to mention the folks working with relentless appetite behind the scenes. “Ivor the floor manager; Jo and Liz, the camerawomen; Paul and George, the VT guys; assistant producers like Rog, Gibbo, Paul Dodd.
“Working late at night with people for years, you really get to know them. I remember our final party after everything had been cancelled and it was truly a family atmosphere. I still keep in touch with many of them. Even though I’m now in the States, I talk to Erik at least twice a month.”
What other shows can boast such a wholesome, welcoming, friendly dynamic? Not many, I guarantee.
How Erik Janssen saved Baseball on Five
Baseball on Five was first broadcast on Opening Day 1997, beaming into British homes a contest between the defending world champion New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners. Initially, the show, raw and rudimentary, was carried sporadically as part of Five’s late night Live & Dangerous sports strand, with analysis from the lovable Todd Macklin and little else beside. Tommy Boyd, a journeyman presenter with no expressed interest in baseball, was the first host, and a pretty lousy one at that.
In its first season, the show was notoriously bad. Aside from the splendid insight provided by Macklin, who had the patience of a saint, there was very little baseball knowledge on display. All too often, those involved saw it as a show inconveniently about baseball, rather than a baseball show. Moreover, nobody seemed to care, with the prevailing British apathy towards North American sports seeping through.
From amid the unrefined, disinterested wreckage, one man came forth to revolutionise the show, set Britain on a path to serious baseball fandom, and rewrite the laws of televisual production. One man. A Canadian. Mr Erik Janssen.
In Roads to Redemption, an epochal baseball guide penned by English author Craig W Thomas (highly recommended for newer fans or those nostalgic about a bygone age), Janssen describes, in typically witty terms, his introduction to Baseball on Five during those dark old days:
“I watched the show when it was on in its first year, and it was terrible. They were doing everything wrong. The presenter would say ‘okay, here’s the Thome home run,’ and it would be someone striking out. No one seemed to know anything about baseball. It was just awful.”
So infuriated was Janssen that he did something entirely out of character: he rang up Five to complain. After reeling off items from an actual, written list, Erik was invited to stop by and provide some advice on the finer points of baseball. After all, he appeared to know the game far better than anybody Five presently employed, with the obvious exception of Macklin.
Initially a voluntary mentor, Janssen wound up staying at Five for a decade, becoming producer of the baseball show in 1998 and later working on NHL and NFL broadcasts.
His first task at Baseball on Five was to hire a new presenter. Boyd, never accused of open-mindedness, mysteriously disappeared one day in May 1997 citing, among other things, a sworn hatred for baseball, which he branded “glorified rounders,” to the eternal chagrin of hardcore fans.
In his stead, Jonny Gould, a bubbly, borderline hyperactive figurehead, was granted a three-show trial, which blossomed into 11 faultless years and more than 600 sensational episodes under Janssen’s edict.
Jonny Gould, Todd Macklin and the birth of a baseball cult
With a new dream team at the helm, spearheaded by Erik and anchored by Jonny and Todd following a complete overhaul, the show simply exploded in performance and popularity. During the late-1990s, many of the core foundations and unmistakable mannerisms that made Baseball on Five so popular were put in place.
By the dawning millennium, the show regularly averaged six-figure audience ratings, peaking at over one million during the epochal Yankees-Mets Subway Series in 2000. A true halcyon moment in the show’s evolution, this was also a tremendous achievement in the context of British televisual history; a low-budget show which - with baseball - chased darkened nights through to early breakfast, commanding the attention of so many people. Truly unprecedented.
In his foreword for Roads to Redemption, Gould wrote that “Five once did some research into who watched the show. Apparently, most of our viewers were students, train drivers, night-shift workers, insomniacs and breast-feeding mothers!
“But you don’t have to have lactating nipples to be a confirmed ‘baseball nut’,” he continued. “It appeals to all sorts of people, from Premiership footballers (Charlton Athletic’s Chris Perry has been known to go to training on three hours’ sleep), to rugby World Cup winners (England skipper Martin Johnson), to showbiz types (TV comedian Phil Jupitus), and even allegedly members of the Royal family, though diplomacy prevents me from saying who.”
Ex-Kansas City Royals pitcher Brett Barash was a studio guest during the 2001 World Series, won by the Arizona Diamondbacks from a Yankees team attempting to provide a salve for its city in the wake of terrorist-wrought devastation. Todd Macklin bowed out after the Fall Classic, leaving the show and returning to Canada with his wife. A gaping void emerged, eventually filled by a boisterous man with a boyish love for the game.
“I had actually never seen the show before I tried out for a position before the beginning of the 2002 season,” recalls Josh Chetwynd of happy times. “I had been working at Major League Baseball as a communications executive when it became clear neither Brett Barash nor Pat Garrigan [two short-lived Macklin replacements] were coming back.
“I had TV experience when I worked as a reporter covering the entertainment industry for USA Today,” Chetwynd explains. “So I was comfortable in front of a camera.
“I also had a baseball background, from NCAA Division 1 at Northwestern University to a brief stint as an independent ball professional in the Frontier League, and for a number of years catcher for GB.
“So the MLB folks asked me if I wanted to try out. I sat next to Jonny Gould in a room with a camera and we riffed quite well. I was thrilled to get the job. So much so, I pushed off plans to return to the States to go to law school.
Chetwynd gave the show an extra injection of energy, with his youthful spontaneity, unbridled passion and exhaustive attention to detail aiding its professionalism and affirming its educative properties. He saw his mission, first and foremost, as to arm viewers with a sound level of understanding so as then to enjoy the baseball and frolics on offer. He succeeded in the most remarkable way, without coming across in the slightest arrogant or condescending.
Josh had long held desires to study law back home in the United States and, midway through the 2003 season, he returned to Arizona to do just that. Five scoured the market for a stopgap replacement before ultimately hiring another lively, intelligent and downright hilarious expert by the name of David Lengel. It soon became obvious that the family had a new, eternal member.
David Lengel and the depths of British baseball dedication
A man of boundless energy and tremendous wit, Davey poured fuel on the open fire of entertainment, trading tongue-in-cheek barbs with Jonny and forming a simply mesmeric bond with his audience. Mellower than his fine predecessor, Lengel was able to make the role his own with stunning rapidity, forming new traditions, developing new mannerisms and concocting new ways for the show to expand.
Often considered so laid back as to be horizontal, Davey took his work very seriously, deep down. After all, who else would regularly commute from Brooklyn to London on a weekly basis merely to work through the night on a niche sports programme?
I will always have a special place in my heart for Davey Lengel, because he was the co-host when I first discovered this addictive show and this therapeutic sport. Along with Jonny Gould, he brought baseball to life in my living room, for which I am eternally grateful. Perhaps if the presenters were not so friendly, caring and passionate, so thoroughly adept at selling the game to swathes of undecided observers, the game would have passed me by, a truly unthinkable horror.
I do have one favourite David Lengel story, however, which still evokes laughter in British baseball circles, and which he still struggles to live down. You likely remember it. Game 3 of the 2005 World Series. Astros, White Sox. First pitch shortly after 1am GMT. Jonny and David open the show looking dapper and fresh, full of trademark enthusiasm and offbeat humour. Houston jumps out to an early 4-0 lead, only for Chicago to pounce with a five-run fifth equalled only by Jason Lane’s game-tying, eighth-inning double.
Then, the innings begin to creep by at a glacial speed. Tied through nine…then ten…and eleven. In the studio, poor old Davey began to visibly wilt, consumed by the searing heat of production lights, stricken by the attendant numbness of sitting still for five hours straight, and haunted by the steady, inexorable encroachment of morning.
Still the game went on. Twelfth inning, tied. Thirteenth, similarly so. Pitching change after life-threatening pitching change. At-bat after interminable at-bat. The guys simply ran out of words, with Lengel left in a crumbled heap of exhaustion between innings, warmly derided by Gould as, of all things, softcore.
Mercifully, the game ground to a cherished conclusion after fourteen painstaking frames, when the White Sox scored two and somehow closed out the longest game, in terms of innings played and time taken, in Fall Classic history. Just before 7 am, the guys signed off, bringing to a close the most monumental broadcast in Baseball on Five lore.
Why Baseball on Five was so beloved by British baseball fans
In the ensuing years, from 2006 through to its sad demise in ’08, the show gathered a sublime momentum, becoming an increasingly intrinsic part of our lives. During this period, when the chemistry was set, the formula was tested, and the production quality was greatly improved, Baseball on Five morphed from a highly educational, serially enjoyable showcase into a wide-reaching, all-pervading cult. The actual show, and the actual game coverage it contained, became just one outgrowth of a flowing, baseball-mad phenomena it helped create.
Brits were watching, playing and consuming baseball in quantities unseen in six or seven decades. The show, basking in deeply unprecedented levels of popularity and participation, soared to new heights. Spurred by the show’s performance, Five sanctioned live, on-site broadcasts of three All-Star Games, taking Erik, Jonny, Josh and Davey to Pittsburgh, San Francisco and old Yankee Stadium in its final days. Similarly, the guys embarked on annual, otherworldly road trips, taking in five or six Major League games in a week of food, fun and, er, fights.
“We were like brothers on those road trips,” Josh recalls. “It was inevitable that we’d be scrapping off camera and exhausted by each other’s idiosyncrasies by the end.
“The best trip, in my opinion, was the last one, in which we went to the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate, the Round Rock Express. The people there were so nice and Jonny threw out a pretty nice first pitch!
“We ultimately had a dizzy bat race, in which I beat Jonny and knocked him down in the process. Jonny is so crazy competitive and, if you asked him, to this day, he would say I deliberately dropped him. Alas, we just ran into each other and it was an accident. Still, he couldn’t handle losing.
I truly believe that Baseball on Five came along at the perfect time, with the characters and business of baseball providing an environment of enjoyment hospitable to such shenanigans. Despite the plague of steroid and performance-enhancing drug abuse prevalent in the early-2000s, a subject on which JC spun some of his finest oratory, this was a truly golden era in the game’s history in my opinion.
So long was its run, Baseball on Five meshed together three different and distinct eras, all exciting, all eliciting awe from the watching masses. The epoch of Clemens, Pedro, Randy Johnson, Glavine, Maddux, Moyer, Frank Thomas and Kenny Rogers joined that of Albert, Manny, Papi, Vladi, Thome, A-Rod and Andruw. We also saw the fledging Miguel Cabrera, a raw David Price, a burgeoning David Wright and a cluster of present stars with names like Longoria and Pedroia.
Discovering Baseball on Five when I did, in the way I did, provided me a prism through which to view an eccentric, eclectic, electric era of sports, and afforded me the opportunity to learn this game and this craft from some of the noblest role models and finest players ever to lace a pair of cleats. To be taught the moral fabric of baseball from Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones, even through the medium of television an ocean away, is a remarkable gift. A gift for which I will be forever thankful.
In addition to its grand overhead missions of growing the game in Britain and introducing fans to a crop of tremendous superstars, Baseball on Five also mastered the little things to produce a well-rounded, something-for-everyone show. I fondly remember so many of the quirks that made it great.
The reading of viewer emails and questions, the literal seventh inning stretch and JC’s perennial mauling of Erik at In-game Trivia. The weekly updates on Britain’s premier fantasy baseball league, so longingly beloved by the competitive Gould. I remember The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Weaver Watch and Phil Jupitus’ Baseball Library.
I remember Josh expounding on the illegitimacy of Bonds’ home run records and the absurdity of the modern All-Star Game during the notorious One Minute Rant. I remember the Ballpark Breakdown, the cashmere baritone of Jon Miller, and the iconic ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts before they were butchered in the post-modern realm.
Why did Channel Five end its North American sports coverage?
Alas, following the enchanting 2008 season, our beloved Baseball on Five drew to a cold conclusion. As part of a cost-cutting measure during the awakening recession, Five, ever a bastion of late-night sports coverage, dispensed with its package of Major a League Baseball.
I was plunged into something amounting to trauma. A dull ache of regret. A sudden pang of sadness. A debilitating emptiness. So many questions raced through our minds. How? Why? What next - for myself, for baseball in Britain, for Jonny and Josh and Erik and Dave?
It was a time of immense sadness.
“The economy was bad at the time,” explains Chetwynd, “and I believe Five wasn’t doing great. There were cheaper ways to programme late nights and I think they were driven by that, which is sad as the baseball show was its longest-running programme.
“I remember going to visit my family in the US just before Christmas in 2008 and being told that there were just some details that needed to be worked out, but that the show was coming back. Within a few days of being in the States, I was told the show was done. It was a huge kick in the guts to all of us. Very, very sad times.”
Amid rumour and counter-rumour, snipe and counter-snipe, Jonny Gould emerged with an open letter to the baseball-loving masses, confirming the show’s unfortunate demise in a piece of prose that still makes my heart sink. Here is that letter, in all its epoch-capturing, dream-shattering beauty:
Welcome Fellow Baseball Nuts……. God I’m going to miss saying that.
I’m sure most of you have heard the rumours. Five TV have ended their association with our beloved sport, or at least they have not committed to another season of Baseball on Five every Wednesday and Sunday night.
The rumours have been many and mixed, and I’m sorry that I’m not in a position to fully clarify the situation for you. What I can tell you is that if this is the end, it has been one hell of a ride.
Understandably, many of our hardcore viewers are pretty pissed off with Five, but remember they have made a 12-year commitment and for that alone we should all be very grateful.
So what’s next? Well, first and foremost the movers and the shakers in UK baseball are still committed to finding a home for baseball on UK television. There is no guarantee as to when or even if that will happen, but we are committed to keeping the baseball family intact.
To that end, we are continuing the Fantasy League this season regardless of whether my Baseball TV career has legs. So get your fantasy caps on tilt because it’s time to play ball!
Baseball – it’s a hardcore thing!!
Just like that, it was all over.
The future of baseball coverage in Britain
Baseball did return to British television, with BT still broadcasting many games per week, but the lack of a studio presence, and the lack of intimacy, renders one a paralysed ball of overwhelming nostalgia. Josh, Erik and occasionally Jonny did return with a radio show on BBC Radio Five Live, but after a few seasons, this was also nixed. Now, for the best part of six years, the truly unique spirit of Baseball on Five has been lost.
I find it so sad that an entire generation of Brits has rounded into adolescence knowing only the NFL as the face of North American sport. Baseball, this far more enchanting, satisfying and human game, exists largely undetected once again. That is a crying shame.
In the sickening aftermath of Baseball on Five, the act of watching baseball, and life as a whole, became slightly duller and more predictable. I struggle to find genuine magic in it anymore. I struggle to find genuine companionship.
The intermittent years have flown by, bringing a steady stream of events and creations that make the show seem distantly anachronistic and my stomach-clamping nostalgia ever so slightly silly: adulthood, social media, political correctness, professional employment and responsibility. However, a part of me still yearns to spend sleepless nights watching baseball and stuffing my face with cookies, with little regard for the consequences.
As JC once wrote, British baseball campaigners are distinguished by their hope, determination and belief. I have fought long and hard for the return of Baseball on Five, without a great deal of success. I have penned many letters, fired innumerable emails and practically begged the powerbrokers at Five to reconsider their hasty decision to wield the axe - all without success.
However, along the way, I have been fortunate to befriend our heroes of the late night screen. I exchanged emails with Jonny attempting to make sense of our pain at the show’s termination, and he even sent me one of his famous goody bags, full of baseball gifts, to ease the agony. Similarly, with encouragement and advice from Josh, David and Craig W Thomas, I found the conviction to pursue a career as, of all things, a sports writer specialising in baseball. I even shared the 2013 British Baseball Writing Award with JC, a career highlight.
The guys have all moved on. Josh returned to Arizona and continues to author books and present radio shows of astounding depth. David enjoys a wide-ranging freelance career and still provides exceptional baseball reporting for The Guardian. Jonny is now an auctioneer to the rich and famous. Erik, meanwhile, continues to produce, most recently at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
All good things must come to an end and, regrettably, I think that era, with that sparkle and that perfect blend of inspirational people, has gone forever. We now live in an era too fast, too hostile, and too cynical for a show like Baseball on Five to work.
Ultimately, my feelings towards the show’s legacy cannot be of sadness and melancholy, but gratefulness and pride. I’m grateful for its introducing to me the greatest game man ever conceived, and I’m proud of what the hardcore and ever so slightly asinine British baseball community was able to create.
To build the warmest, funniest, most sensationally addictive sports show ever to grace terrestrial television in the United Kingdom required spades of passion and dedication from many men and women. I’m just glad to have played a part, no matter how small.