They call it Baseball Zen. And I am hooked.
Granted, I never thought it’d be the place where I’d find a state of calm meditation.
Zen in Major League Baseball? I grew up with a game in which the veins popped in Earl Weaver’s neck as he went nose to nose with an umpire, usually Ron Luciano. A game in which Reggie Jackson fought with Billy Martin in the Yankees dugout, George Brett’s eyes bulged as his home run was nullified by pine tar, Tommy Lasorda expanded the limits of profanity when asked about Dave Kingman, Nolan Ryan rained punches on Robin Ventura, Bo Jackson snapped a bat over his knee and Pedro Martinez hurled senior citizen Don Zimmer to the ground.
All ancient history? Well, how about Madison Bumgarner flipping out a couple of weeks ago because umpire Dan Bellino was weirdly holding his hand? Or Tuesday afternoon when normally mild-mannered Dodgers manager Dave Roberts charged onto the field, with sunglasses waving, before being ejected for arguing a checked swing?
Zen? With brushbacks, beanballs and bench-clearing brawls? Or fans fussing and fighting in the stands? Lots of nights, the game seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
But ah (or maybe I should say “om”?), if you’re like me and have been watching games on MLB.TV, you’ve been introduced to an alternate reality, one which finds transcendence in a rain delay, tranquility in the lining of the foul lines and sweet harmony in the spray of a watering hose on the infield grass. It’s a magical combination of amplified sound and super slow-motion imagery that allows you to see and hear things — like the private smile that creeps across the face of Shohei Ohtani, and the sound his bat makes as it falls to the ground after a home-run swing — that you’ve never seen or heard quite the same way before.
Baseball Zen is what MLB calls these 30-second fillers that air during inning breaks on MLB.TV, with the time measured by the gold-dust looking basepaths disappearing like sand in an hourglass. But “filler” doesn’t do these spots justice. On your way to the fridge for another beer? Trust me: For a half-minute, Baseball Zen will stop you in your tracks. Or maybe it won’t (depends on how thirsty you are, I suppose).
But for me, they’re mesmerizing, mystical and must-see TV, which is why I reached out to David Hochman, the director of business and technology communications at MLB. He, in turn, directed me to the person whose team creates Baseball Zen — Gabe Bevilacqua, MLB’s senior vice president of product management, streaming and subscriptions.
“So we've got a team of folks who think about content for MLB.TV who, it's very fair to say, are, just as you would expect, huge baseball fans,” Bevilacqua said. “And sort of like our opening move with everything we do is ’Is this gonna be awesome for baseball fans?’
“We think about the experience of TV as well, what happens between the innings, and sometimes it's a normal paid TV commercial. And that's great. It's actually part of a baseball broadcast. But when those don't fit, you know, the opportunity to add content to it, that adds to the experience of the game and adds to the experience of using the product, is really important to us. So that's sort of our starting maneuver.”
At their disposal, Bevilacqua said, were reams of high-quality video footage from their broadcast partners, as well as MLB’s jewel events like the All-Star game, postseason action and last summer’s Field of Dreams game.
“And the thinking was, well, how do we take that and maybe do something a little different with it — that we thought fit into what was an emerging trend in the way people are consuming videos,” Bevilacqua explained.
That trend involves a phenomenon called ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. It’s described by ScienceDaily as the relaxing “brain tingles” experienced by some people in response to specific triggers, such as “whispering, tapping and slow hand movements.” YouTube has published millions of videos intended to induce ASMR.
I can’t say I tingled at the sight of a grounds crew worker watering the infield, or even while watching Ohtani release a pitch in super-slow motion. But there was something cool (and, yes, relaxing) about watching — and listening — to these clips.
“You hear about things like ASMR. There's this concept of people are looking for digital rest stops, right?” said Bevilacqua, a Princeton grad whose background includes stints with Viacom, Rallyverse and Microsoft. “Where like, you're sort of bombarded with information (in) the world we live in, on Twitter and streaming apps and everything. And so can we change the speed a little bit?
“You know, we've really just thought that there's a beauty and experience inherent to baseball that actually is a little different than other sports. And we had an opportunity, with the footage and with sound editing, to show the game in a different way. And we really thought it worked.”
The intent was to create something atmospheric that went beyond watching even the most creative replay clips.
“You've sort of seen the slow motion, but getting the sound correct, both in terms of music, but also the sounds of that moment — that's a lot of it,” Bevilacqua said. “I think another thing that we really focused on was just having a different sort of depth and spacing to things. Not just slow motion but also closeups of things and angles that aren't your traditional angles, that aren't the center-field camera or the high home view. Sort of to evoke, like when you're at the game, right? You see the game from different angles. That was important to work in as well.”
Bevilacqua acknowledged his team drew some inspiration from Disney, which has posted something it calls “Zenimation” on Disney Plus.
“But the game and experience of baseball, I think, does lend itself to this presentation,” he said. “And it's not to say you couldn't do it for other things in other sports. If you poke around, you'll see that there are other streaming services, not even sports, that have done things that look like this. But I think connecting it to baseball was just a very, very, very good fit.”
Baseball Zen. Try it for yourself. You may never look at the game the same way again.