An interview with John DeMarsico

“What’s the movie you’re trying to make for that day?”

John DeMarsico with the SNY broadcast team  (photo courtesy of John DeMarsico | photo credit: Elena Friedman)

“So, in cinema the basic unit is the shot, as in theater the basic unit is the scene. In television, the basic unit is the event,” wrote Francis Ford Coppola in 2017. The occasion, Live Cinema and its Techniques, is a book of startling speculative urgency. What if cinema could be created—and accessed—live? What if it’s in the air? “Whether for a sporting event or a live television play, one is forced to get what shots one can to cover the event,” he goes on. “In cinema, on the other hand, we carefully design not only the shot but the magical effect that comes when one shot is cut to another, known as montage.”

Dedicated to John Frankenheimer, whose early experiments in live, televised dramas on programs like the Philco Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90, the book is a crucial compendium for a certain kind of cinephile who—as Valentine’s chocolates fade to the palette’s back and temperate days start to stab through weekly slogs like sprigs of manicured bluegrass—begins to turn their attention to the dream of baseball. Coppola isn’t trying to ennoble ‘cinema’ as the medium to which all moving images should aspire. But he is inviting us to think about baseball with all the energy and turbulence that cinema inspires and promises. Live Cinema, then, is in crackerjack conversation with the moving images of John DeMarsico.

DeMarsico has been the New York Mets Game Director at SNY since 2020, and has worked with the broadcast itself for 15 years. Surely, I exude an East Coast bias that lent my younger days playground familiarity with the batting averages of both Mike Piazza and Scott Brosius in near-equal scrutiny. What was the 2000 World Series but a way to see a city meet itself? You could hear your neighbors on the radio. Surely also, few nightly broadcasts are as purely entertaining and elegantly moving as the ones DeMarsico directs. As notable as they’ve become for their obvious stylistic and cinematic flourishes—behold the Buck hit-by-pitch cam a la Kill Bill (2003)—the care in edit and (live!) montage that DeMarsico and his collaborators practice is paramount. There’s a lot to be learned about the dissolve and crush of song and image in their handling of deGrom’s return to Queens. And there’s also nothing to learn: it’s how the baseball moves.

On the first day of February, a touch early to smell the Spring Training hot dogs but late enough not to worry about wanting it, I spoke to John about the cinema inside of baseball and the baseball inside of everything else. “Just as with live baseball,” Coppola wrote in 2017, “much of your enjoyment is in your mind, your awareness that the performance in all its flaws are live.” I think perhaps this live turbulence extends to however we meet one another, whether via video chat in the stop sign of winter or the perpetual thaw of raising our voices together and heading for home: “I don’t care if I ever get back.”

In an interview at Willets Pen, you mention how really, at the time when a lot of the stylistic choices you and your team were making started to first get noticed, those flourishes were 5% of the broadcast and the other 95% was baseball. Does that ratio still seem right to you?

Baseball has been broadcast a certain way for a hundred years. Obviously there have been changes in the technology and camera placement, but the ABC’s of baseball have always been the same. And baseball is a sport that gives you ample opportunity to create along the edges of the traditional broadcast, because of the time that you have between pitches, between pitching changes. There’s a lot of downtime to set the scene in baseball that you don’t get in other sports. And so that 5%—I would say it’s probably closer to 10% now—of the broadcast gives us opportunities to express ourselves creatively outside of the core game, whether it be something that I want to do, or an interview, or something our sideline reporter wants to do. Or you know, all the hijinks we do in the booth. That stuff doesn’t really exist in other sports because you just don’t have the time. I do basketball in the off season and the game moves so quickly that it’s really quite rigid, what you can do creatively. Fortunately for me, I’m a baseball director. I just find the game the perfect cinematic sport, the perfect sport for television. If you’re doing your job correctly, you don’t miss anything and at the same time, you’re able to sort of embellish the sport that’s already great.

You’re finding so much stuff around it. How does the ball move? How does the central thing move, right? And then how does the camera relate to that central thing? Whenever  the ball is moved, if it’s hit or thrown, the camera has to follow it, as opposed to being on top of it, like in basketball. 

Absolutely, baseball is unique: it’s one of the only sports that doesn’t go left to right on your television. In theory, you could cover the other sports with one camera. You know, you have your high camera, moving left, right, left, right…it’d be pretty boring. But you could do it. You can’t really do that with baseball. Because most of the runs are scored away from the ball, which is kind of an oddball thing for a sport—the ball usually follows the points. You have to cut away from the ball during live action a lot, which you really never do in any other sport. And so it puts a lot of responsibility on the production group to make the right decisions in real time to convey what’s going on on the field accurately to people watching at home.

And I feel like the feeling of being at the ballpark and the feeling of watching a baseball broadcast are just so different. Especially in terms of where the spectator sits, literally.

When I do a day game, I try to direct a different show. I’m trying to make the broadcast more leisurely, with less cuts. I try to capture the mood in the ballpark a little more: there’s more kids there, the sun is shining. I’m more likely to have a handheld camera wandering the concourse to try to capture some more perspectives from around the ballpark. Because baseball during the day feels more like… poetry. It’s more leisurely, it’s pastoral. Night games are mano a mano, pitcher, batter, tight eyes. Sometimes during day games, you’ll get those moments, but it’s really a different philosophy for each time and space. What’s the movie you’re trying to make for that day? Because every game is different. You never know who’s going to be your leading man that day. You never know what the situation is going to be.

But at the same time, you can have sort of a feel. It’s a feel thing. You get to the ballpark before a day game, it’s hot dogs, peanuts, and beer…baseball during the day feels different. Day baseball feels more Malick to me. It’s a little slower. The commentary is different, you know?

And it’s all predicated on light too.

Absolutely. Nothing looks better on camera than Wrigley Field during the day. You know what’s actually the sweetest spot? Wrigley Field, close to sunset. Because you get the sun going down and it shoots through the concourse; Wrigley Field is one of the last ballparks where you can look into the seats and see through them, and see Wrigleyville. And you get the sun coming through the structure of that building and it creates these spectacular landscapes of this amazing ballpark, and the camera positions there are so intimate because it wasn’t really built with television in mind. I feel like when you take those cameras, it’s like you’re on the field and the field sort of rises up from the ground. It’s just a spectacular place. I love Wrigley and Fenway and all the classic ballparks. Dodger Stadium, you get some pretty spectacular sunsets there too.

You must have a sort of mental-emotional list: these are the places we’re going to go to, these are the places we’ll shoot at over the next however many months, yeah?

It’s the beauty of baseball. It’s not uniform. Every ballpark is unique. I’ve been to every ballpark, except the new one in Texas. Every ballpark has their thing. You go to San Francisco, you can shoot McCovey Cove—half the time I’ll just have a camera planted out there because you get some really interesting stuff. Milwaukee, you have Bernie Brewer on the home run slide. Every ballpark, there’s something to find that’s interesting. I try to find a balance, especially on the road, between game coverage and what’s happening in the park. We’re trying to capture the humanity within the game.

As the game becomes more mechanized with pitch clocks and the K-Zone, and eventually robot umpires, I find it more interesting to hint at the humanity in the ballpark. And the game’s not always going to be great. You’re going to get blowouts, you’re going to get games that are less interesting. So I always look for the human moments, whether it’s a kid sitting with his dad, scoring the game or, you know, a lady ordering a hot dog and a beer and maybe she spills it…stuff like that. Wrigley Field, when they start doing the cupsnake in the bleachers, we sent Steve Gelbs, our sideline reporter, out there to investigate that. And it turned into a whole thing where he’s holding up the cup snake and he’s interviewing one of the people in left field. And he’s sticking a microphone in front of this guy. And it’s just insanity.

To hear you describe it like that, it’s sort of like a time capsule. Like, the baseball broadcast is the game and the stats but it’s also that thing that’s happening out there. You have this brand new community that’s just sort of always springing up and you guys are there to document it.

Deep down, I believe all people are voyeurs. And anytime you can put somebody in a (non-threatening) voyeuristic position and show them a slice of life that’s happening in real time, it’s interesting. And it’s just one of those things that we sprinkle into that 10% of creative time. 

Do you have a sense for yourself when you realized you were watching baseball broadcasts that way? Is there like a sort of foundational memory?

The “aha!” moment for me was the first time I stepped into a TV truck and saw the way the sausage gets made. I grew up a die hard Mets fan. I watched games nonstop. And obviously I’ve loved movies my whole life. But I never really thought of baseball as a medium like that, where there’s crossover. But I interned for SNY in 2009. And the first time I walked into the TV truck and I saw Bill Webb direct the baseball game, I thought, Oh, this is live editing. You know, I was in film school back then. I was really interested in editing. And he was editing a baseball movie live. And something clicked in my head: this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m never leaving this TV truck. There were fewer rules back in 2009, so I told my boss during that internship that I wanted to work every day. I didn’t want to miss a game. Even on the days I wasn’t supposed to be, I was there. I fell into it and I’ve never gotten out. 

It changed the way I think creatively. It combined my two greatest loves, baseball and movies. Obviously, you start by going to get coffees and hot dogs. That’s your first job. And then, you do graphics, and you go to the replays and eventually, you know, I got to where I am today. But it really was a magical moment the first time I saw the way everything is done. And one of my favorite things to do now is to bring people to the truck and see their eyes light up when we do the things that we do. Because a lot of the time, when you’re doing your job correctly, the broadcast can be invisible. I don’t necessarily embrace that philosophy, but if you’re doing your job right, people don’t notice the broadcast. So when people see for the first time all the moving parts, their eyes light up. It’s one of the coolest feelings for me.

I mean, it sounds like when they talk to Spielberg about being on the backlot for the first time. It’s Live Cinema.

Absolutely, I totally agree. Televised sports are the last bastion of things that people only watch live. Everything else is streaming, everything else is pre-taped. You can’t binge watch sports. It’s got to be watched live. So every game creates a unique opportunity to do something different. One of the great things (and bad things) about baseball is that it’s every single day for seven months, from the end of February until early October. (For us in the regular season; I don’t have to do postseason.) It’s a marathon. But because it’s every day, every cut I take isn’t life or death. The guys doing football once a week have so much rigid structure to what they need to get into the game. There’s meetings all week. They go over every single graphic that they’re going to use for that Sunday’s game. There are no surprises. Part of the greatness of our show, I think, is the spontaneity of it. We don’t do a ton of meetings. There are meetings, but we try not to do a practice run. We want the first take. It’s like Friedkin always said: the first take is okay, we’re not gonna do a second take because it’s never gonna be as good. We’re of the same philosophy. We don’t want to show Gary, Keith and Ron a funny graphic we’re gonna do…when I did the Kill Bill thing, no one knew I was going to do that. Gary was like, what the hell is going on down there? It’s this marathon season that sort of lends itself to the creative flourishes that we’re able to do. 

On that feeling of repetition, and the spontaneity that emerges from it: do you have a favorite thing that happens all the time in baseball—maybe multiple times a game—that doesn’t seem especially interesting, but to you is especially beautiful?

It’s a shame we’re not on the air to show the pregame rituals that the players have, whether it’s catchers doing drills or guys taking grounders or infielders working with a specific coach. Seeing how the stadium comes to life… it’s more than what’s on the field. It’s the vendors getting ready to pop the popcorn, bringing the hot dogs up. We go up to the booth and it’s all the writers getting ready for the game. If you get there early enough, you get to watch Citi Field wake up. A lot of the time, the buildup is more interesting than the actual final product. That’s the beauty of baseball. 

It’s a feel thing. You get to the ballpark before a day game, it’s hot dogs, peanuts, and beer… baseball during the day feels different. Day baseball feels more Malick to me. It’s a little slower.

Baseball is one of the only sports where you’re really able to show the full chessboard. You’re really able to set the scene before the climax happens and that’s not always the case in other sports. You’re able to show the base runners, you’re able to show the coaches giving signs, you’re really able to set up the thrilling moment because of the setup. It’s like when De Palma shows the bucket of blood in Carrie (1976). That moment when the blood drops on her isn’t nearly as interesting without that crane shot that starts on the bucket and then comes down and sets the scene for what you’re about to see take place. The audience knows what’s gonna take place, but it wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t set the scene and show it.

To hear you talk about the ballpark waking, it makes sense why the first pitch feels so monumental. First pitch is always this moment that makes good on hours and hours and hours of setup that everyone has put into it. It’s the payoff that restarts the tension.

There’s just a thousand little human moments from noon until seven o’clock. And it builds to that climax at 7:10 every night. 

And then once it starts, there’s these constant miniature resets, between almost every time the ball moves. It doesn’t give us that much time, I imagine. Not enough time to plan, just enough time to react?

That’s why in baseball, every single camera has a specific job based on the current situation, whether it be runners on first, second, third, and how many outs there are, lefty, righty pitching, lefty, righty batting. So every camera knows their assignment based on the current play. And so if those guys are doing their job correctly, I’m able to think five or six steps ahead because I know those cameras are going to be on the people that they’re supposed to be on. So sometimes, I don’t even have to look at the camera. If it’s in my peripheral, I can take it and know it’s going to be there while focusing on a shot that I’m waiting to develop. Because you don’t want to jump the cut before the moment happens. You also don’t wanna miss it. If you’re waiting for a reaction, or a shot of the manager to get unblocked by the hitting coach or whatever it may be, you have to have buffer shots in between. The wheels are constantly turning when it comes to that kind of stuff.

Doing it by feel?

Very much so. Baseball is all feel. It’s all instinct. And it’s similar to playing the game, honestly.

Did you play the game?

I played the game my whole life, up through college at NC State. You have to speak baseball before you can maybe do some of the flourishes that we do. Because the game comes first. Sometimes I feel like I speak baseball better than English. That’s changing a little bit as the game evolves: I’m becoming a bit of a crotchety old man, whether it be with the pitch clock or, you know, a lot of the technological advancements that have happened that are probably good for the game in the long run but—right now—are taking a lot of the humanity out of it. The confrontation of pitcher versus batter hasn’t changed, obviously. But there are one thousand other little moments in the game.

Think about the relationship between the catcher and the pitcher, about giving signs. That was a big thing that we lost with Pitch Com. Because that was a back and forth, unspoken dialogue that you could really document. It became part of the storytelling that we used within the fabric of the game. And without that, it’s become this sort of stale, boring shot of the catcher hitting buttons on his wrist or on his shin guard. Half the time the thing breaks, and he’s got to go out there and they’ve got to bring a new one. It’s made the game, I guess, better in theory, but less interesting. The same goes for the challenge system. Every great play that’s made, every close play at first base, you’re not able to truly capture the jubilance or the agony because everybody’s waiting around for the manager to hold up their hand. Great plays where the shortstop dives up the middle and there’s a bang bang play at first base,no one’s celebrating or congratulating anyone. Everyone’s looking at the dugout. And I have to take a shot of the manager on the telephone, or a shot of the hitting coach, the bench coach, whoever, on a telephone, have him relay it to the manager and then the manager does the earmuff sign. And I have to spill two minutes of a shot of an umpire with a headset on.

It’s stuff like that that has made the TV broadcast a less entertaining event. And that’s part of the reason why our group has really tried to push the envelope creatively. Because baseball has, for a long time, had the reputation of being a “boring” sport. And it’s stuff like challenges and Pitch Com, that in my opinion, sort of add to that assumption. So we do the things we do. And we’re very fortunate as a production, and the fans are very fortunate, to have Gary, Keith and Ron up there. Because none of it really happens without them. Again, it’s that ‘feel’ thing—they can do it without the image. And it’s somehow even deeper. I like to just hear them talk through the game. Our producer, Gregg Picker, is a creative genius. He’s the mastermind around a lot of the things that have made Gary, Keith, and Ron so special over the years. He’s been there since day one, since the first day at the network in 2006. Our booth is the longest tenured trio of announcers that’s ever been in the booth for the Mets. I came in 2009. So we’ve all been together long enough that we’re able to finish each other’s sentences. And that’s really important when you’re doing what we’re doing. I kind of know where Gary’s going to go a few sentences into whatever he’s saying. And you know what Keith’s follow-up is going to be. Well, actually that’s not true. You never know what Keith’s follow-up is going to be.

But you know there will be a follow-up.

[Laughs] Yes. And so you’re able to kind of follow. And the beautiful thing about what we do in this job: there’s the booth and then there’s what we do in the truck. And sometimes you lead from production, with the pictures and the video and the replays. But sometimes you become a follower, following a story, whether it’s Keith saying it, Ronnie saying it, or Gary saying it. And it’s give and take. When it’s the three guys in the booth and our four key cogs in production—that’s Gregg, me, our associate director, Eddie Wahrman, and our associate producer, Tom Rochlin—it really is a special mechanism. And then there are sixty people here at the compound making this broadcast seamless. It’s fun to be part of a team. It almost feels like I never stopped playing baseball. And we all pick each other up. We spend a lot of time with each other over the course of seven months. We don’t talk a lot in the off-season because we spent so much time together. We actually have our pre-season meeting this Friday. So I’ll see all those guys on Friday when we go over our season stuff before spring training.

What does this time of the year feel like for you? Are you thinking about the images yet? Are you thinking about the storylines? Just feeling?

I have a couple of little ideas, but it’s more about getting to spring training, getting the reps in down there and getting my timing back for baseball. I don’t watch a lot of other sports broadcasts during the off-season, partially because I’m burnt out by the end of baseball. And also because I have an almost four year-old. And so that’s basically my life during the off season, with a little bit of basketball thrown in there. I get a lot more inspiration from watching movies. Watching and thinking about film the way that I do, it really sort of permeates my brain when I make a cut. I’m always thinking more cinematically than just documenting an event, which is a lot of what a broadcast is. I try to make every cut with intention.

Are there any movies recently that are like, looming for you, in terms of like, a feel that you want to explore, that may wind up permeating the broadcast?

Well, my favorite movie of 2023 was Infinity Pool. I don’t know how I’m gonna work that into a Mets broadcast. I don’t think that’s allowed over the air. I loved Oppenheimer. I loved the feel of The Killer. I loved All of Us Strangers, that was beautiful. I’m going to go see The Zone of Interest today. I don’t know if there’s been one movie that I’ve earmarked to work into the broadcast. It’s more letting it permeate, and then cut in real time. I’m most effective when I don’t think, sometimes. You just rely on your instinct. It’s hard to really know in real time what you did. It’s a better teaching tool for me if I go back and watch a clip from a year or two ago where I don’t necessarily know what’s happened. Now I’ll see something where, oh, that’s an interesting decision. That actually worked. So I find that more useful as a director, growing. Going back to the tape again, like a ball player.

I always try to remind myself of the extent to which filmmakers watch other films to figure out how to execute shots. Not in a copycat way, just oh, how did they get that shot? How can we do that for our thing?

Absolutely. It’s why you really try to push the access and get more cameras and mics on the field. If you watch a baseball movie, it’s hard to imitate a lot of the shots because they have cameras on the field. I don’t watch baseball movies necessarily for inspiration because a lot of those shots don’t make a lot of sense for what we do. But you know, I grew up watching Major League (1989). So capturing Edwin Diaz doing his Ricky Vaughn “‘Wild Thing’” thing was definitely one of the highlights of my career thus far. I absolutely love that.

Do you dream about making a film, making a moving image thing someday that’s not these kinds of broadcasts?

It’s always in the back of my mind. I have a few ideas. Whether I have the time to actually have them come to fruition, that’s another story. I love what I get to do, I’m not looking for a career change by any means. But maybe. Maybe one day my hobby becomes more than that. It’s already made an impact on my professional career. Last year, I did an event at the Museum of the Moving Image. There were 300 plus people in that building. I cut a video montage of my things and their cinematic influence. And so it’s things like that get my juices flowing to maybe seek out some other opportunities. But right now I am perfectly content making a movie every day during baseball season. It’s how I approach things. Before the season starts, you don’t know who the leading man’s going to be. You don’t know what the storylines are going to be, but every game has its own isolated little story that you can tell. It’s just a matter of finding it every day.