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In a Flyover State: Showtime Hopes It Has A New 'Franchise'

If you are going to have a camera crew spend an entire 162- game season following around a baseball team and try and make a show out of it, chances are good it will get a bit boring. Unless that team is the San Francisco Giants.

Showtime executives aren’t excited about The Franchise: A Season With the San Francisco Giants (which debuts July 13) because the Giants play in the most beautiful ballpark in the country or even because they are reigning World Series champs. They’re bullish on the new show because the Giants are a group composed of some serious camera-ready characters and a couple of major league whack jobs.

The cast of characters is managed by team skipper Bruce Bochy, who could be mistaken for Lou Brown, the gruff coach of the misfit Cleveland Indians in Major League. But the real star of this show promises to be closer Brian Wilson. If you’ve never seen Wilson, that’s too bad. Unless you are the water cooler he recently assaulted with a bat after a tough outing. Wilson sports a haircut that is an insult to the entire barber industry, and a massive black beard that looks like he bought it at the 99 Cent Store. He’s also a lights-out pitcher. And off the field, he is a full-fledged nut case, who seems to always be on, and knows how to play to a camera.

“I can see why [the show] picked this team,” says veteran Giants outfielder Aubrey Huff.

I spent a game day in San Francisco with the team and the crew from MLB Productions, which is behind the show, and quickly saw what The Franchise is trying to be—and doing its best not to be.

Anytime a docu-series follows a pro sports team, it immediately raises comparisons to HBO’s trend-setting HardKnocks, which follows an NFL team through training camp. And that will happen as soon as this show starts airing.

But Showtime and MLB execs are quick to maintain this will be a much different product. For instance, it will follow the team for eight months, not a matter of weeks like its football counterpart does. And while Hard Knocks is often built around story lines having to do with conflicts created during training camp—like whether a player will make the team or not (or whether they can name all their kids)— Showtime hopes The Franchise will be compelling due to the access its cameras have and the trust level with the players and team staff. Of course, with the beginning of the NFL season still up in the air, there may not be a Hard Knocks this season to compare it to.

And that would be fine with some Giants staffers I spoke with, who said they were not fans of insider-access sports shows they have seen in the past, whether it’s Hard Knocks or a series MLB once did on the Chicago White Sox front office, because of the often negative portrayals of people involved. But team execs are comfortable in this environment, and they should be: If they don’t see something they like, they say they can basically stop it from ever airing. So, clearly we shouldn’t expect much tabloid fodder from The Franchise.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll be boring. Giants general manager Brian Sabean told me he and his team have a very good understanding of the goal of the show, so they are giving the cameras significant access, even more so than they expected. Sabean said they have tossed out the cameras only a few times, for things like meetings with medical staffers.

“It’s been seamless, it’s people we know,” Sabean said in an interview in the bowels of AT&T Park after a shoot for the show and before running the team’s draft that day. “We know what they want, what they are after, so we’re in a tolerant state of mind about this.”

I saw that firsthand on the field during batting practice, when the players were coming up and casually interacting with the show’s producers and cameramen. You could see the sense of trust there, which hopefully will lead to some good television, especially away from the field. While some players don’t want the cameras infringing on their personal space, one player actually invited a crew to stay in Puerto Rico a couple of extra days to shoot his birthday party.

And the show should look pretty good, too. The day I was there, the crew was shooting with a super slo-mo camera called a Phantom, which was apparently designed for either the military in Eastern Europe or for the U.S. Army. No one was quite sure which, but just renting the thing for a few days cost more than most people’s monthly mortgage. So they would be wise to lock it up when Dodgers execs come to town, or it may disappear and end up being sold on eBay to pay the bills.

Not long before my visit with the Giants, team catcher Buster Posey was knocked out for the season, literally, by an opposing player. While it was a clean play technically, Sabean was pissed, and all but threatened the opposing player in an interview, before backing off eventually in a subsequent statement.

I told him I loved what he said the first time. He laughed and gave me a look like, “There is no way in hell I’m gonna say anything to get in trouble again.” Here’s hoping when the cameras are rolling for The Franchise, he and his players don’t show the same restraint.

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