Critic's Notebook: The Profound Oddness of Televised Pandemic Baseball

FOX Sports - Major League Baseball broadcasts – virtual fans - Pixatope software-H 2020
Courtesy of FOX Sports

On Saturday afternoon, Adam Duvall hit a screaming line drive into the right-field stands at Citi Field in Queens. The ball reached the second row before anybody could react, hitting a spectator in the head with a resounding "Thwack!" that could be heard through the stadium. The spectator in question was a jovial-looking dog, tongue lolling, wearing some sort of Mets bandana. The pup, named Willow, belongs to Jeff McNeil and was fortunately unharmed, because the dog was one of three canine cardboard cutouts occupying an otherwise empty bleacher.

Baseball in 2020 is extremely weird, kids.

It has been less than a week since Major League Baseball officially returned, following a delay of nearly three months due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Already, there are serious questions regarding how long this experiment will be able to last. The Florida Marlins, who were never expected to be competitively relevant this season, have become extremely relevant to jeopardizing the season: At least 15 players have tested positive for COVID-19, causing the postponement of a string of games and ample concern about the rest of the Marlins organization and anybody who has come in contact with them.

Baseball officials profess not to be concerned, and games without Marlins involvement are continuing apace. That leaves franchises and TV networks still trying to figure out the best way to make baseball without fans feel less like kids playing sandlot ball next to an eerie haunted house — "Don't hit in that direction, because the witch who lives there won't throw the ball back!" — and more like America's pastime. And yes, it's extra ironic that the Marlins are currently a franchise on lockdown, because if anybody would find it natural to play baseball in front of an empty stadium, it's the Florida Marlins. [And yes, they're the "Miami" Marlins, technically. I still call Tampa Bay the "Devil Rays," too.]

If you've ever seen a Kevin Costner movie, you know that in a sporting world driven by adrenaline and brutality, baseball is poetic. It's a sensory experience. The crack of the bat. The impeccably manicured infield grass. The Doppler-effect undulations of a joyous crowd engaged in the Wave. The aroma of roasted peanuts. The melodic, escapist promise of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." It's communal and it's immersive.

What baseball has become, in a world in which we're still not prepared to allow even partial crowds back to stadiums, is an experiment in minimalism, bordering on nihilism. In short, baseball has gone from Field of Dreams to something more apocalyptic like The Postman or any movie theater showing Draft Day.

Take, for example, the portrait of loneliness at Fenway Park the other night when Alex Verdugo, wearing a live mic, stood solitary in the outfield and lamented the lack of fans to gab with between innings. "At least I would have people to talk to. Now? I got nobody. I got Jackie," Verdugo said, looking balefully off into the distance at fellow outfielder Jackie Bradley. "But he's far. So I got nobody."

It's at least partially for the players' benefit that games have continued to include loud-speaker announcements as well as niceties carried over from a simpler time — like how Fenway has maintained use of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" playing during a seventh inning stretch for nearly 37,000 empty seats. Baseball is a game of rituals, and the seventh inning stretch has also continued in stadiums loosely populated with cardboard cutouts. Cardboard cutouts don't need to stretch, nor do they chase after baseballs. Willow, while cute, was in no mood to play fetch.

Fans watching from home are in a similar situation, and the networks showing the games and the teams themselves have been trying desperately to compensate, with varying levels of success.

Although the sound levels are determined independently by each team, the ESPN games I've watched have utilized a steady hum of nearly ambient noise, a general rumble punctuated by a gentle roar to accompany a home team rally. It's better than pure silence, but it doesn't mask on-field noise. Me, I love the disorganized cacophony of five players converging around the mound calling each other off to catch a pop-up. There's something pleasantly unfiltered when a player is unable to resist swearing after a strikeout. I'm sure moments like that freak the networks out — and heaven knows the announcers get instantly apologetic whenever it happens — but baseball is already a sport that condenses its intensity and emotional outbursts into small pockets; it's sad watching a celebratory player consciously avoiding hugging or even high-fiving a teammate.

Announcers already have bigger problems than swearing players anyway. ESPN has been airing games called by remote crews. Sometimes it's commentators sitting in a studio watching the game on TV themselves. At least there's natural rapport there. Other games have been called with three announcers Skyping (or Zooming or whatever) together from their own homes. I can find amusement in 63-year-old Tim Kurkjian lamenting his lack of technical aptitude and struggling not to talk over his colleagues, and I can laugh at the prominently placed Baby Yoda doll in Eduardo Pérez's recording space. But it's not the same.

ESPN is, if we're being honest, mostly just desperate to have baseball back. And there's something almost equally desperate about how readily the announcers are trumpeting innovations like the expanded postseason — more games for ESPN! — or starting extra-innings with a runner on-base. Or, strangest of all, the little-known regulation that if games last beyond 12 innings, both teams have to bat against Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Leave it to the good people at Fox, inventors of the glowing hockey puck, the glowing 10-yard-line and several other innovations that don't glow, to engage in total overkill. Perhaps coincidentally, the Fox action I've watched has been in stadiums using overbearing piped-in game audio. Not content with the occasional ersatz cheer, it has featured wolf-whistles, inopportune choruses of "Charge!" and situation-specific responses like disgruntled rumbling after too many pick-off throws to first. It's annoying because of how obviously it's just somebody at a Casio keyboard (or, more likely, on a laptop) pressing a button, making me wonder every time they miss a cue — a lack of disappointment on a close two-strike pitch or the misjudged applause on a towering fly ball that looks like a home run for one second and ends up a lazy fly-out.

That's still better than Fox's erratic use of a digitally populated crowd. When you cut from a wide shot of an empty stadium to a medium shot of fuzzy-faced CG people wearing disproportionately large team logos (ordinary logos wouldn't pick up on-camera) to close-ups of fielders making plays in front of now-empty crowds, it isn't baseball that you're destroying; it's rudimentary cinematic grammar. It's disorienting and sloppy, and that's before you get to how creepy the dead-eyed crowds are. The technology at Fox's disposal is like something out of the Star Wars prequels when George Lucas was so anxious to show that he could insert a small group of ETs — or "Asogians," for the nerd-sensitive — that he didn't stop to think if it made any sense to have a small group of ETs represented in the Galactic Senate. 

The virtual fans are robotic, nightmarish and, worst of all, none of them are wearing masks or practicing social distancing. It's bad enough that the Marlins are going to pass the coronavirus along to 29 other baseball franchises, but the virtual crowd at Wrigley Field is going to pass virtual coronavirus along to The Sims and all of your Animal Crossing characters. Buy me some peanuts and an expansion pack, indeed.

"We're not fooling you. This is just to make it a little bit more normal every once in a while," one of the announcers commented during a weekend Wrigley game.

But might I posit this controversial notion: Maybe there's nothing wrong with being able to accept that this isn't normal and that pretending anything is normal, even "every once in a while," borders on dangerous. Infection numbers are spiking in California, Texas and Florida (among other states) and yet we're pretending that it's a good idea to play baseball because we need the entertainment and billionaire baseball owners TV executives need the money. And that's fine. Trust me, I drafted an already-infuriating 60-game fantasy baseball team and I love the distraction of a baseball player beaning a cardboard canine with a fast-moving projectile.

But nothing about this is normal.