On a typical April morning, the reporter, the anchor and the ex-player would gather at the MLB Network studios to recap the previous night's baseball games and discuss the day's hot topics.
But due to the coronavirus outbreak, this year has been anything but typical for Lauren Shehadi, Robert Flores and Mark DeRosa – the hosts of the network’s popular morning show, "MLB Central." They’re still getting together, but they’re doing so from their homes – Shehadi in Maine, Flores in New Jersey and DeRosa in Georgia.
“It should be baseball season right now. I want to talk about baseball,” says DeRosa, who played 16 seasons in the majors, in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “I’m just fired up that we took this step to at least put ourselves back out there. It’s a glimmer of hope. That’s the way I look at it.”
MLB Central hosts (L-R) Mark DeRosa, Lauren Shehadi and Robert Flores can't broadcast from the MLB Network studios during the coronavirus shutdown, so they're getting together for digital segments three times per week. (Photo: MLB Network)
The digital-only version of MLB Central airs three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Unlike the full three-hour breakfast buffet that usually appears on television, this is more of an appetizer.
“Sports fans are so starved for anything to serve as a distraction to what is some really grim news,” Flores says. “I think we’ve done a good job … to give people a distraction, an escape and just put a smile on their face, even if it’s for 10 minutes.”
The discussion topics are mostly fun and light-hearted, emphasizing the trio’s chemistry.
“You’d be hard-pressed if you walked into our studios to know if we’re taping or not. It’s the same kind of banter on- or off-camera,” Shehadi says.
Which five people can @LaurenShehadi, @RoFlo, @markdero7 & the @TheMayorsOffice not wait to see back on the field? #MLBCentral
Hint: One of them is “Cookie Belltts” 😂 pic.twitter.com/49dqmfnxPF
The main questions fans want answered these days are when baseball will return and what it will look like when it does. From his experience, DeRosa says most position players will need 40 competitive at-bats – around two to three weeks – before they’re ready to play real games. But that’s where the similarity to past seasons will likely end.
“This is an opportunity within the game to take some chances,” he says. “If there are no fans, can we mic the players? Is there going to be an electronic strike zone? Some different innovations that they can take a look at moving forward when it does return to complete normalcy?”
If the regular season has to be trimmed, Shehadi is intrigued by the possibility of expanding the playoffs.
“I don’t know that there’s anything more exciting than a wild-card game. If there’s more of those or a best-of-three (series) where the manager’s every single move has to be calculated and every single move matters … That is so much fun to watch,” she says. “Watching a wild-card game is my favorite thing in sports, so any more of that is a beautiful thing in my opinion.”
As a former player, DeRosa says working with Shehadi and Flores has helped him see the game from a different perspective. “The old-school version of me would say, ‘No, I don’t want expanded playoffs. You have to earn the right to get in.’ The new-school way of me is thinking, like Lauren, ‘Those wild-card games. There ain’t nothing better. If I can get more of that, I’m in.’ ”
Figuring out which teams will make the playoffs is always a fun topic. Flores thinks the Tampa Bay Rays will be there, possibly unseating the New York Yankees as AL East champs. Shehadi believes the Cincinnati Reds have a great shot in a “wide open” NL Central. And DeRosa can’t wait to see the excitement in Chicago, where the White Sox will be “super-interesting” and his former teammate David Ross (“I think he’ll be amazing!”) is taking over as the Cubs’ new manager.
Even though it may be a while before any of those predictions can be judged, Flores says it helps to at least be able to look ahead to when things are a bit closer to normal.
“Traditionally, baseball has had a very important role in being there for the country in various times of despair,” he says. “We all want to see the game back.”
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
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