Only once prior to this season did we experience a baseball game played without fans: in April 2015, when the Orioles hosted the White Sox at Camden Yards amid protests following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
You can watch that game in its entirety on MLB’s YouTube. Players, coaches, and members of the media generally described the fan-less experience as surreal. The crack of the bat and the sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt were as clear as day. There was no low hum of the crowd obfuscating those otherwise forgotten sounds.
MLB teams have attempted to address issues with aesthetics as the 2020 regular season got under way on Thursday. Some teams are allowing fans to pay to have cardboard cutouts of their likenesses placed in seats around the stadium. Teams are piping in crowd noise. FOX Sports is going to attempt adding virtual fans into their broadcasts.
These attempts have been met with mixed reactions. To be clear, there’s no right or wrong reaction to the changes. But from watching the Yankees-Nationals game tonight, which went into a rain delay in the top of the sixth inning, as well as the early part of the Giants-Dodgers game, I really didn’t notice a difference. Of course, the cardboard cutouts or otherwise empty seats were noticeable, but they blended into the background quickly. I didn’t notice them unless ESPN was specifically panning around the stadium. While Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole were on the mound, I was focused on the game, not the background. Your mileage may vary.
The piped-in crowd noise, borrowed from the MLB The Show video game, also felt normal and quickly went unnoticed. I felt that was the case during the exhibition spring training games and it was the case for both of tonight’s regular season games. Those manning the controls did a good job of regulating the volume for the given situations. Amusingly, the biggest broadcast flaw came when ESPN was late to show the first pitch of the Giants-Dodgers game.
We’re getting as close to normal baseball as we can get, given the circumstances. Kudos to those involved for making that happen. All this being said, I reserve the right to retract this sentiment with the virtual fans.