- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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Ten years ago today, then-"Baseball Tonight" producer Judd Burch was driving from his home to ESPN when he got the idea: A nightly segment of the show highlighting the best defensive plays of the day, and it would be called Web Gems. People remember where they were at the time of the Kennedy assassination, and when the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Burch remembers, "I was at the corner of Birch Street and Redstone Hill [in Bristol, Conn.] when it happened. I knew it was a great idea. I've had some bad ideas. I knew this would work.''
So that night -- April 6, 2000 -- on the midnight ET "Baseball Tonight" show hosted by Brian Kenny, with analysts Buck Martinez and yours truly, associate producer Scott Clark cut the first Web Gem in history: A play made by Cardinals third baseman Fernando Tatis, followed by Devil Rays center fielder Gerald Williams and Expos second baseman Jose Vidro. Over the last 10 years, hundreds of players, and thousands of great plays, have made Web Gems a signature feature of "Baseball Tonight." Like Kleenex, Weber grills and "SportsCenter," a brand name describes a product. A Web Gem defines all great defensive plays.
"The clue to 14 Down in the New York Times crossword puzzle on Nov. 11, 2006 is 'Baseball Tonight segment featuring day's best defensive plays,''' said Burch. "The answer is Web Gems. I knew it was legitimate then. That crossword is framed in my house.''
Angels center fielder Torii Hunter has been on Web Gems more than most anyone in the game.
"It's still a thrill to be on Web Gems," Hunter said. "No matter how many times you've been on, I'll still go home after a game, watch a play and say, 'Wow, did I do that?' If I'm on Web Gems tomorrow, it will be the same excitement as the first time I was on in 2000.''
Burch got the idea in 2000 when Jeff Schneider, then the coordinating producer for "Baseball Tonight," challenged his people to devise an element that would incorporate ESPN.com. Burch thought of accentuating defense at a time when baseball was in the midst of perhaps the greatest offensive era in history, a time when every other highlight was someone hitting a home run. "I figured we could show the play on TV, and have people vote at home on dot-com for the best play of the day,'' Burch said. "It was a play on words because a web is a part of a baseball glove, and the Web, of course, is the Internet.''
It is no surprise that it was Burch who came up with the idea because there is no greater lover of baseball at ESPN. He is brilliant, hilarious and a little odd: He knows the uniform number of every umpire in the major leagues. In July 2009, he wandered into a room where the "Baseball Tonight" crew was watching 13 games simultaneous on a random Tuesday night. He was asked, without warning, "Judd, who is working third base tonight in Texas?'' He thought about it for less than five seconds, and said, "Adrian Johnson.''
And he was right! Burch also is the biggest Phillies fan in the world. The guys in the ESPN newsroom occasionally play a game in which they name a date of any Phillies game from the last five or so years, and Burch will tell you what happened that day. He was given an obscure game randomly chosen from three years earlier. Burch, in less than five seconds, said, "Phillies beat the Cardinals, 7-5. The Cardinals scored two runs in the first, and the Phillies scored three runs. Charlie Reliford worked the plate.'' And he was right!
"In 2000, the Phillies were a bad team, and Scott Rolen was my favorite player,'' Burch said. "Some nights, the Phillies weren't even getting in the show. One of the inspirations for Web Gems was getting Scott Rolen in the show, he's the best defensive third baseman in Phillies history. If there had been no Scott Rolen, there would have been no Web Gems.''
Ten years later, this fact was relayed to Rolen.
It's still a thrill to be on Web Gems. No matter how many times you've been on, I'll still go home after a game, watch a play and say, 'Wow, did I do that?' If I'm on Web Gems tomorrow, it will be the same excitement as the first time I was on in 2000.
”-- Angels center fielder Torii Hunter
"I'm flattered,'' he said.
Rolen has been on Web Gems dozens of times over the last 10 years.
"'Baseball Tonight' is always on in the clubhouse, and when Web Gems comes on, everyone stops,'' Rolen said. "They don't stop for every home run, but they stop for Web Gems. There's a lot of hollering, and a lot of oohs and aahs. Some guys get upset when a play they made wasn't ruled a 'Web Gem.' What [Burch] created was a good thing for baseball, but it has also pissed off a lot of players."
Burch agreed, saying, "The players take it very seriously. When [second baseman] Orlando Hudson was with Toronto, he called me on the phone before a show to tell me that his team had had five Web Gems that day, and then he described them all to me. He told me, 'We better be on the show because we had five of them.' It's an honor to be on Web Gems.''
Seattle shortstop Jack Wilson has a pennant hanging in his locker in the Mariners' spring training home in Peoira, Ariz., that he received from 'Baseball Tonight' for having the most Web Gems by a shortstop in 2009. "It's pretty cool,'' he said. "I remember the first one I ever got. It was in my first big league game, 2001 in Cincinnati. It was a knee slide deep in the hole, then let it fly. Kevin Young made a great pick at first. My parents were at the game, so was my brother. After the game, we all went out to eat. We were watching 'Baseball Tonight' when Web Gems came on, and there I was. It was exciting. And it's good for the game. Defense was overlooked in baseball for a long time, but it's coming back in the major leagues now. Teams are turning to it more now to win more games. Now everyone knows what a Web Gem is.''
Over the last 10 years, that has been a source of debate. What exactly qualifies as a Web Gem? Should a play made by an infielder be given more weight than a play made by an outfielder? What deserves more credit, a great catch or a great throw? And the most litigious question: Can a player get a Web Gem without recording an out on the play? For instance: an outfielder reaches over the fence in the ninth inning of a one-run game, he doesn't catch the ball, but he deflects it back on the field; the batter ends up with a triple, not a home run, and the defensive team holds on to the lead and wins the game. No out was recorded, but that play won the game.
Burch made the final call on that. "I can imagine many scenarios where an out is not recorded on a Web Gem,'' he said. "If [Phillies catcher] Carlos Ruiz blocks a ball in the dirt to keep the winning run from scoring in the ninth, that's a Web Gem.''
The Phillies have had their share of Web Gems, but probably no team has had more in the last 10 years than the Twins. Several years ago, there was a Web Gems special on a Sunday night, and many of the Twins' players stayed in the clubhouse to watch it as a team.
"That was the ultimate tribute, they were an inspiration for Web Gems,'' Burch said. "One night we arranged it so Web Gems was played live on the scoreboard at the sold-out Metrodome before a Twins-Red Sox game on Sunday Night Baseball. It was a Twins-only Web Gems. We have since done that for other teams, but the Twins were the first team.''
After perhaps Hunter, no Twins player has been in Web Gems more than Nick Punto.
"Nick Punto will never be on 'Baseball Tonight' hitting a game-winning, three-run homer, but he could be on every night because of Web Gems,'' said Burch. "That's why we did it. Defense never goes out of style. There are people in the Hall of Fame for defense. It is such a fun segment.''
"I know I'll never be appearing on Going, Going, Gone,'' Punto said with a laugh. "Web Gems are so much fun. My dad coaches youth baseball teams, and when one of his players makes a great play, they jump up and say, 'That was a Web Gem.' It's not a great play, it's a Web Gem. It's important to give kids something they can relate to. For me, in my hometown, I'm kind of related to the Web Gems, that's how kids there know me. That's kind of cool.''
The segment has grown tremendously. It used to be used only on the final "Baseball Tonight" of a particular night, then, as it grew in popularity, it became part of every show. Now, the staff at "Baseball Tonight" counts the number of Web Gems that each player has during the course of a season. Points are awarded for the fifth, fourth, third, second and best Web Gems of the day. Last year, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman won the inaugural Web Gems award.
"Now people talk about it in the stands,'' said Burch. "On the Phillies' 2008 championship highlight tape, J.C. Romero is talking about Web Gems after a play that Jamie Moyer made. Ten years ago, when I was driving to work, I didn't think this would happen, I didn't think it would happen that every great defensive play would be called a Web Gem, but it did.''
"I was thinking about putting Web Gems on my license plate,'' he said. "And I still might.''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.