After a nearly four-month long delay due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Major League Baseball kicked off its 2020 season on July 23. Real, live regular-season games finally returned, and we immediately received confirmation that this 60-game sprint is not going to look, sound or feel the same as any before it.
Before the season got underway, we explored a few ways for baseball to be creative in 2020, a season where there won't be any fans at the ballparks to start. Now, after almost two weeks of play, we're going to take a look at some of the best, worst and downright bizarre aspects from a fan-less MLB season in 2020.
I'm already on record for being pro-cardboard cutouts. I thought it was a harmless and fun idea for clubs to use this season. And after seeing them put to use in ballparks all across baseball, I'm still a fan. Yeah, they're totally strange but they give the stadiums a fullness to them that's far less strange than staring at thousands of empty seats. It's also just good-hearted fun. Even the Buffalo-based Toronto Blue Jays are getting in on the cutout fun at Sahlen Field.
However, I do have to say that the photo a fan sends in can make or break it. I've seen far too many cutouts that were zoomed in way too much, and when printed out, looked like giant Fathead decals. Particularly, this tended to happen with selfies. I'd say the best looking cut outs were those that were shoulder up, basically a headshot. So when the team prints it out to place in a seat, it's a little less jarring. Alright, well now I can check off analyzing pieces of cardboard as one of the weirder things I've done in 2020.
Anyway, here's some of the best cardboard cut out moments so far this season:
The Chicago White Sox players had cutouts of their families made and placed in the stands. This seemed like a great idea, and something that their young kids at home probably think is the coolest thing ever.
Hall of Famer and noted Mets killer Chipper Jones somehow had a cardboard cutout of himself and his son snuck into the stands at Citi Field. Oh, and I almost forgot: Jones' son name? Shea. As in the Mets' former ballpark. That's a true commitment to trolling.
The Royals proved my point that the headshot cutout looks best. Kansas City native and actor Paul Rudd and the Negro Leagues' Monarchs legend Buck O'Neil fit in real nicely at Kauffman Stadium.
Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen officially introduced us to his alter ego, Uncle Larry, during baseball's shutdown. Before you get all judgmental, we all got bored and resorted to doing weird things during the shutdown, OK? McCutchen certainly knows how to have some fun and he's been a constant source of entertainment on social media. So, the Phillies club gave some love to Uncle Larry as one of the cutouts at Citizens Bank Park:
And, I'm saving the best for last here:
We'll get to some of the oddest cardboard cutout incidents when we touch base on the weirdest aspects of this 2020 season below.
Players having fun with it
I'm all for players just generally having fun. Flip the bat, get excited, do all the things. It's a game, and for all of these players, it's not going to last forever. Why not enjoy it while you still can? Now more than ever, fans could use a fun, lighthearted distraction. A player who embraces the idea of having fun while playing a sport he loves is Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. After crushing his first home run of the season, Acuna took to the crowd-less crowd to give a curtain call:
Bringing in those who can't be there
The Texas Rangers put together something really special for their season opener. On the Jumbotron at the brand new Globe Life Field, the Rangers brought in the families of players and coaches for a surprise pregame moment via Zoom.
In a similar move, I saw some broadcasts — the Mariners and Yankees, for example — bring in fans who are watching the game at home into the studio via Zoom. It was a neat way to highlight fans who in normal circumstances might have been cheering on their team at the ballpark instead of at home.
Alright, time for the seemingly most controversial topic of them all. Artificial crowd noise was first experimented with during some of the spring training 2.0 games, and it sounded decent. Now, during real, live broadcasts, there were instances where the fake crowd murmurs and cheers sounded great. They weren't distracting, it didn't feel (too) weird and the timing was close to perfect. Particularly, I want to give a shout out to the Yankees-Nationals July 25 game on FOX. Fred Vogler acted as the sound designer and mixer for the "crowd" and he managed to make the sound fit in seamlessly instead of having it act as a detractor from the happenings of the game.
It was also fun to see the broadcasts and in-stadium PAs work together to make this classic sporting anthem heard by fans at home:
I like that they still play the "everybody clap your hands" song at ballparks and the fake crowd claps.— Mike Axisa (@mikeaxisa) July 26, 2020
However, I can't say every instance of fake crowd noise sounded good.
Yeah, so there's still some kinks to work out with this. On a few games, I felt myself getting a headache from the fake crowd noise, it sounded more like buzzing versus the natural murmuring/cheering sound in others. And, sometimes, the timing on cheers for plays was seriously delayed or happened too early. The bad crowd noise didn't ruin the broadcast or the game-watching experience, but it did distract.
Lacking in technological experiments
It seems like MLB hasn't fully utilized technology to engage fans while at home. It may just be that there wasn't enough time to set up anything more advanced than what they managed to get into place. As of now, MLB has set up a way for fans to add cheers to the crowd noise from the stadium that's heard on the broadcast but there's not much else on social media that's interactive. And while the season is still young, there hasn't been much follow-up to Mets first baseman Pete Alonso and his desire to mic up first base. Other than the mic getting Alonso confessing that chocolate milk and squats are the secret to his power at the plate, no more footage of teammate or opponent interaction has been released.
But when looking at what the NBA did to enhance its broadcasts this season, like new camera angles and the opportunity for fans to appear virtually in the arena, baseball seems lagging in coming up with innovative technology. I'm sure not every advancement is applicable to the sport of baseball, but it seems like there could be more ways to engage fans via technology/social media while at home. This is the perfect time to test out a few new ideas, and I'm hopeful the online baseball fan interactivity only improves from here.
If the coronavirus pandemic has left you feeling lost, you're not alone. MLB mascots all across the league are experiencing the same void without their daily routine. It's pretty funny that mascots are still involved in this fan-less season, and they've each provided their own version of weirdness with their presence.
Take this lonely Fredbird in St. Louis trying to put on a brave face for the fans at home:
The Phillie Phanatic hyping up the crowd, per usual. Except that this crowd is the not the reactionary kind.
Alexa, play "All By Myself."
The show must go on for Mr. and Mrs. Met. The couple was dancing by themselves in an empty Citi Field:
So, Fox Sports MLB television broadcasts have also experimented with virtual fans. It was ... weird. And because it's 2020, the weird managed to find a way to get weirder. Take this instance with Twins' Nelson Cruz:
Props to Cleveland for the tongue-in-cheek take on the occurrence.
Tom Hanks will be a vendor to a fan-less A's ballpark
This one requires a bit of an explanation. So, two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks is an Oakland native. His first real job was a vendor for the Oakland Athletics at the Coliseum in the 70s. So, when A's president Dave Kaval was looking for more ways to maintain the uniqueness of the 2020 season experience, he settled on asking if Hanks would lend his voice as a vendor.
"He was just like, 'It's really amazing what you guys are doing at the Coliseum,'" Kaval told MLB.com. "And I was like, 'Yeah, well, we want to make it as real as possible.' What better way than to have the voice of Tom Hanks selling hot dogs and peanuts like it was 1973 with Vida Blue on the mound?"
So, yes, Hanks is going to be hawking hot dogs, popcorn, programs and more over the loudspeakers this season. Take a listen:
Cardboard cut out mishaps
We'll round this one out back where we started. As I mentioned earlier, the cardboard cutouts are a hit. But, alas, some cardboard cutouts suffered some damage while taking in the games. First, the Braves' Adam Duvall hit a home run that smacked the cardboard cutout of Mets' Jeff McNeil's dog.
Poor Willow wasn't the only one to take on a serious hit. Dodgers fan Austin Donley witnessed the assault on his own cardboard cutout on live television. Dodgers catcher Will Smith nailed the fan's cardboard cutout with his home run, he sent the baseball cutting right through the cutout.
Luckily, Smith wanted to make up for it and he ended up sending the fan an autographed bat.
Sorry I took your head off 😂😂😂 shoot me a dm and I’ll hook it up for you— Will Smith (@will_smith30) July 26, 2020