Inside the SNY production truck for a Mets telecast

The SNY broadcast team (l-r): Ron Darling, coordinating The SNY broadcast team (l-r): Ron Darling, coordinating producer Gregg Picker, Gary Cohen, director Bill Webb and Keith Hernandez. (May 30, 2012) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

It was another long, winding night of baseball in Queens, and the topics of conversation were following a path as crooked as the game's.

A Ken "Hawk'' Harrelson imitation. The Danny Cater-for-Sparky Lyle trade. Tom Poston as a panelist on the ancient show "To Tell the Truth." A request for a dozen chocolate glazed doughnuts to a person dressed up as a Dunkin' Donuts cup.

An urgent visit to the men's room.

And high-level, highly detailed baseball strategy, too.

This was Wednesday in the Pepsi Porch at Citi Field, where SNY's Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez were making their second annual appearance, hoping the rain would hold off and a home run would touch down in their vicinity. (They got both wishes, except the latter was hit by a Phillie, not a Met.)

But what really was interesting about all of the above was that none of it -- other than the home run -- happened on the telecast itself but rather between innings of the Mets' 10-6 loss.

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It was revealed through a rare look deep inside one of the most highly regarded local sports telecasts -- baseball or otherwise -- from a perch in the production truck directly beside producer Gregg Picker and director Bill Webb.

Two related things stood out: The relaxed chemistry that has marked the SNY team carries over off the air, where it sometimes is difficult to tell when the TV talk stops and off-camera banter begins.

And, too, that the give-and-take between the announcers and Picker, and between Webb and his cameramen, is so seamless that it reflects well on everyone.

One example of the latter: During an early at-bat for the Phillies' Placido Polanco, Darling noted off-air the Mets' second baseman, centerfielder and rightfielder in a tight triangle, trying to squeeze a batter known for hitting to right-center.

Picker recalled that point before Polanco's next at-bat. Webb got a shot of the defense. Darling discussed it. One pitch later, Polanco popped out to second baseman Daniel Murphy, who was playing deeper than usual.

Later, Hernandez asked Picker off-air whether Lucas Duda had hit two home runs in a game before. "I'll check," the producer said. But a second later, Cohen was telling viewers it was Duda's second such game this season. He hit two April 7.

Said someone in the back of the truck: "That's our research department: Gary."

The announcers lavished praise on Webb's feel for the right live shot and replay and on Picker for eliciting their insights. "He won't let us settle for the mundane or cliche," Cohen said of Picker.

That sort of interaction is essential to a well-run live sports telecast, and is not uncommon. What sets SNY apart is the comfortable vibe that pervades the truck and announcing booth and wears well over the course of the long season.

The ideal long ago was described by the late Curt Gowdy, whose son, Curt Jr., oversees SNY's coverage as executive producer.

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"I tried to pretend that I was sitting in the stands with a buddy watching the game," the elder Gowdy once said, "poking him in the ribs when something exciting happened. I never took myself too seriously."

Said Picker: "Our goal is very simple: It's to educate viewers and entertain them. That's it. There's a lot of ways to do that, and we've found a pretty good formula that works for us."

It helps that the three announcers, Picker and Webb -- who doubles as Fox's lead director -- have been together since the network launched in 2006. Reporter Kevin Burkhardt joined them one year later. Much of the rest of the crew also has been around for years.

That fosters a comfort level both professionally and personally and allows for ample good-natured ribbing.

Hernandez told the truck he would need a restroom break during the seventh-inning stretch -- and would require a security escort to get him quickly in and out of the facilities in the upper deck. So naturally a camera was trained on him between innings, trailed by four guards, a scene that greatly amused the staff but did not make it on-air.

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Meanwhile, Picker ordered a hot dog and asked Webb if he wanted one. Webb said no. After the hot dog arrived, Webb tortured Picker the rest of the night for not ordering him one.

"We have fun," Hernandez said. "I do, at least. We do have our chuckles."

The trick is not doing so at the expense of the game, which in Wednesday's case was taut and interesting for seven innings, then fell apart along with the Mets' bullpen. By the bottom of the ninth, everyone was ready for the game to be over, with a rare day off beckoning Thursday.

The season is only one-third over, and Darling likened the experience to that of astronauts. "They put us in this bubble and they shoot us into space in April," he said, "and we splash down in October."

The analogy makes sense, given the cramped quarters and general lack of gravity. On the other hand, there certainly is no shortage of atmosphere.

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