It’s been a while since ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” has come to viewers live from Pittsburgh, 6,497 days to be exact.
Since that 12-8 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on July 28, 1996, the Pittsburgh Pirates have moved from Three Rivers Stadium to PNC Park, the site of tonight’s broadcast when the Pirates host the Cardinals at 8:05 p.m.
ESPN is also bringing its “Baseball Tonight” broadcast to Pittsburgh leading into the game, meaning that game broadcasters Dan Shulman, John Kruk and Buster Olney will be joined by studio hosts Karl Ravech, Barry Larkin and guest analyst, Jon Hamm, an avid baseball fan and star of Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm,” based on a reality show in India started by J.B. Bernstein that eventually led to the Pirates signing pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel into the organization.
For Shulman, the play-by-play voice of “Sunday Night Baseball,” the chance to return to Pittsburgh and showcase the city and its stadium on a national stage is one that he’s eager to take on.
“The ballpark is among the best in baseball, it’s absolutely beautiful,” Shulman said. “I know we’re going to spend some time to take people around the ballpark as much as we can. A lot of people have heard people say it’s nice but they haven’t seen it because the Pirates aren’t on national television all that often. But we’re going to try to show everyone how beautiful the park is.”
While the prime-time slot on Sundays is a coveted one during the summer, it’s one that the Pirates have rarely seen in “Sunday Night Baseball’s” 24 previous seasons, appearing only eight times. Tonight’s game will be the Pirates’ first appearance on the Sunday night stage since a 5-3 win over the Houston Astros on May 19, 2002 at Houston.
Pirates fans won’t have to wait long after tonight to see the club under the Sunday lights with Pittsburgh slated to visit the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 1. The short span between appearances may be a nod to the team’s success last year when it compiled a 94-68 record, topped the Reds in the National League’s wild-card game and stretched St. Louis to five games in the division series.
“Last year, for a while, I was really pushing for our guys to come to Pittsburgh,” Shulman said. “But we don’t have as much flexibility some times as people think we do in choosing games. Last year I got some Twitter feedback because I talked about the Pirates a lot on Twitter. Maybe it’s the fondness of the 1979 team or the history of the ballpark or a combination of both ... I think last year Pittsburgh fans felt that their team deserved a little more attention than they got and they certainly got in a variety of ways down the stretch, beating Cincinnati and so forth.
“I hope they’re happy to have us. I hope we get a good crowd and I’m happy to be here.”
The game is also a chance for either the Pirates or Cardinals – two teams that have fallen off their 2013 pace – a night to show that the ship may be righted soon.
“For the Pirates, last year their starting pitching was so good,” Shulman said. “You look at all the guys with ERAs in the 3s, that’s not the case this year. A lot of them have ERAs in the 4s now. I think a lot of those one-run wins have turned into one-run losses. I think the Pirates are better than their record has shown. I still think they’re a good baseball team, they’ve just gotten off to a slow start.
“As for the Cardinals. Preseason, for what it’s worth, they ask us to make picks every year and I picked them to win the World Series and there’s a long way to go. I think they’re going to get better as well. They’ve got some players on the DL who are going to come back. The thing for them is ‘can they score more runs?’ The offense was so good last year, they had that crazy year hitting .330 with runners in scoring position, which had never been done before. You can’t expect them to duplicate that, but I do think their offense and their team will get better over the course of the season.”
Notes: The “Baseball Tonight” set will be set up outside PNC Park on Federal Street, near the Roberto Clemente Bridge ... Shulman has been on the call for two events at PNC Park on ESPN Radio, calling the 2006 All-Star Game and last year’s wild-card win over the Reds ... The Pirates are 4-4 in their previous eight appearances on “Sunday Night Baseball,” winning in their last four appearances.
Shawn Curtis is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/shawncurtis430.