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12/29/08 12:45 PM EST

Petitti shapes vision for MLB Network

President/CEO, a true baseball fan, plays big role in channel's birth

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Friday lunches are free at the MLB Network's second-floor cafeteria -- have been for all of December, ever since this final push to launch the cable channel began. It's a popular perk, but one with a catch: eating lunch takes time.

Tony Petitti, for one, has precious little of that. So while his employees were milling about the cafeteria one recent Friday afternoon, Petitti, the nascent network's chief executive officer, bustled in and out with a plate in hand, pausing only to flag down a nearby assistant.

"Do I have a couple of minutes to wolf this down?" Petitti asked.

He had been at work since 5 a.m. ET. The request seemed fair.

"Today," Petitti said, "was an early day."

A late one, too, and -- he hoped -- a productive one. That's been the norm far more than the exception for Petitti, the man behind one of Major League Baseball's most ambitious projects to date. When the MLB Network launches on New Year's Day to an audience of roughly 50 million homes, viewers will be able to see hours of original programming, highlights and classic games, all of it months before the World Baseball Classic and the 2009 season even begins. But what they won't see is Petitti, the man who played a critical role in making it all happen.

He stumbled into this, in a way. The former vice president of programming at ABC Sports and executive vice president of CBS Sports, Petitti spent 20 years in television before MLB came calling earlier this year. At his former job, he helped create the Bowl Championship Series to determine college football's national champion. And after switching networks, he worked to bring live NFL coverage back to CBS.

Yet for Petitti, the MLB Network presented a wholly different opportunity. It was the chance to build something from scratch, to take the league's resources and mix them with his personal vision. It was that clichéd old "one-in-a-lifetime" thing, the type that sports television executives don't often see.

Or as Petitti put it, "You don't get many opportunities, no matter what your career is, to really build something new."

Walking through his network's headquarters on free-lunch Friday, Petitti realized the full scope of what he had built perhaps for the first time. Yogi Berra and Don Larsen had stopped by to tape commentary for a special on Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, and as he watched them, Petitti ceased harping on the incompleteness of his converted MSNBC studios, and he began considering their functionality.

The network's pistons, finally, were pumping at a rapid rate, churning Petitti's vision into reality.

"Just to be around that buzz of activity is fun," he said.

A bit of his excitement on that day also stemmed from the fact that Petitti, quite simply, is a baseball fan. Born and raised in Far Rockaway, N.Y., a neighborhood of Queens, Petitti was the son of a New York City policeman who adopted the Mets as his team after the Dodgers skipped town.

Petitti attended Game 1 of the 1986 World Series, a loss for his Mets en route to a more memorable victory. And he played baseball and stickball in the streets of Queens, fostering his love of the sport on a more local level.

"I was outside all the time," Petitti said. "That's the way my block was. I'm old enough to have been one of the guys who can say he played baseball when it was a pickup game."

A catcher in spite of his slender frame, Petitti went on to captain the baseball team for Haverford College, a Division III school just outside Philadelphia.

These days, he is a father of two girls, aged 13 and 10, living in Westchester, N.Y. A few faint wrinkles have begun to crease his forehead, though they seem to convey a sense more akin to wonder than worry. He is young for an executive but old for a baseball player, which at times he still fashions himself to be.

Perhaps that's why Petitti enjoys spending so much time in Studio 42, the network's half-scale model of a big league ballpark. The seats, the turf, the basepaths all hold a certain appeal for a man who calls to it as "the world's greatest Wiffle Ball stadium," and to an executive who aims to create a ubiquitous feeling of baseball within his network's building.

It's a feeling that seems to have caught on. Petitti was admiring Studio 42 on this particular Friday, in fact, when Harold Reynolds, one of the network's on-air talents, tossed him a glove and began badgering him into a game of catch. Petitti finally obliged.


"It sounds good when it hits the glove like that," he said, smiling in spite of this busiest of days.

"Look, it's a warehouse out in Secaucus, N.J., but it's a great place to be. And what is great about it is, from the moment you walk through the door, it feels like baseball."
-- President and CEO Tony Petitti, on the MLB Network headquarters

Petitti took a few more throws and then tossed his glove aside, though Reynolds wasn't satisfied.

"I want to take some ground balls," he said, as if that were the most natural thing in the world to want to do in a television studio. "Somebody hit me some ground balls."

So somebody did -- such requests aren't often refused in this building -- while Petitti shuffled off behind second base to speak with a visitor. He has had many visitors this month, quite a few of them coming for private tours of the fledgling network. And Petitti has continued to receive them all -- one of his aides said that he hasn't refused a single interview request in the hectic weeks leading up to the network's launch.

Perhaps Petitti has unlimited reserves of patience. Or perhaps, more likely, he simply enjoys talking about the sport. And so with Reynolds playing catch in front of him, Petitti drifted deep into conversation, breaking away from his guest only to form the pivot for Reynolds on a mock double play.

"Look, it's a warehouse out in Secaucus, N.J.," Petitti said, "but it's a great place to be. And what is great about it is, from the moment you walk through the door, it feels like baseball."

That's the plan, at least, set into motion by a man who seems committed to it. Petitti thinks about the sport constantly -- "I love the fact that it's baseball," he said about his job -- and he often considers the effect his new network will have upon it.

Imagine that -- Petitti now shaping the game that has helped to shape him.

"When you work in television," he said, his voice growing serious, "you want to care about it. You want to make it important."

So far, if nothing else, he's made it bigger, bolder -- certainly more ubiquitous. He loves the fact that it's baseball, and it's a rather safe bet that he's not the only one.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.