For ultra-early risers, very-late night owls and insomniacs, or specifically baseball-starved fans craving a Major League Baseball season that came achingly close to starting, there was an oasis of live sports relief last week during the hours most people are asleep.
After a delay due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Korean Baseball Organization started its 2020 season last Monday. In the search for programming while leagues in the United States are shut down, ESPN worked out a deal to broadcast six live KBO games per week, with an English broadcast done by announcers in the U.S.
The quality of the games, which include a handful of former big-league players, isn’t great. It’s probably a little lower than the Triple-A level. But it’s real, live baseball.
Beyond the joy of watching baseball, these games provide a glimpse of what Mariners games and other MLB matchups might look like if/when they return.
The status of the 2020 MLB season is in flux. Owners reportedly are preparing a proposal to restart the season potentially on July 1 with a three-week spring training starting June 10, and with teams practicing and playing games in their home ballparks.
While the logistics and details have yet to be announced, one thing seems certain among baseball executives, staff and players: Games will be played without fans for the foreseeable future.
“We know there won’t be fans in T-Mobile Park when we start back up,” a Mariners front-office source said.
In South Korea and Taiwan, where its league also recently resumed the season, stadiums are empty except for players, staff, umpires and some media members. Base coaches and umpires must wear masks and latex gloves on the field, and the teams’ training staffs wear masks in the dugouts. Some players wear masks in the dugout, but not on the field. Spitting is not allowed.
The stands are empty. Well, the SK Wyverns, Samsung Dinos and a few other teams have small groups of team cheerleaders dancing and yelling toward imaginary fans and ambivalent players, which is somewhat amusing, if not strange.
Both countries are well ahead of the U.S. in terms of controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus. Still, letting fans attend games there was never a realistic immediate option; there are too many risks to make it viable.
MLB likely will do the same, losing millions in ticket and concession revenue, given the current social-distancing guidelines and varying rules about group gatherings and protection for the players.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, in a video interview with Peter Hamby of Good Luck America on Snapchat, said the return of the Mariners, Sounders and college athletics this summer would be without fans.
“I don’t think you are going to see crowds in stadiums,” she said. “I don’t know if you saw it, but in Taiwan, they had their first games and they actually had mannequins in the seats. You may get virtual fans. But I think there is going to be enough challenges to get players to different cities. So I don’t see crowds in our near future. But I think we can be innovative in different ways.”
Like many other MLB teams, the Mariners are monitoring ESPN’s KBO broadcasts to see how those games look and feel without fans.
The organization is brainstorming possibilities of how to make the in-game experience in the stadium beneficial for the players, and how to put together a broadcast that draws in fans.
The Mariners’ marketing group and game-production staff are among the best in baseball. There have been discussions about cardboard cutouts of fans in seats. Perhaps they allow fans to send in photos to the team and pay for cutouts of them to be placed in the ballpark.
Artificial crowd noise can be heard at some KBO games, pumped through speakers and made louder after certain plays. Would the Mariners do that? Could they capitalize on the booming use of Zoom and have interactive fans perhaps yelling and cheering on the JumboTron? Cheerleaders probably aren’t an option. But nothing appears to be off the table.
The Mariners would love to get creative. But that requires enough people to execute those plans. Would they be allowed to have enough staff in the production and video room to put together the ballpark entertainment aspects that could bring some normalcy? Those aspects are unclear when it comes to MLB’s proposal.
It’s similar with the television broadcast. There have been meetings with regional network Root Sports and its production crew to discuss what a game broadcast would be like without fans. Could they do more with camera placement and additional cameras to bring viewers a better experience? After all, they wouldn’t have to worry about cameras blocking fans’ views.
Mariners play-by-play broadcaster Dave Sims watched a few innings of a KBO game and acknowledged that playing without fans would be different, but not unfamiliar.
“I’m just happy that we might have games,” he said. “I’ve done games with sparse crowds before, so that’s nothing new.”
Sims said fans would be able to consistently hear what is said on the field. There usually isn’t a lack of foul language.
“I will spend the entire broadcast apologizing,” Sims said. “Hell, I can hear sometimes Vogey (the Mariners’ Daniel Vogelbach) when there are 30,000 people in the ballpark. It will be eerie, because certainly at home I feed off the crowd when I’m calling a game. And you know the players do.”
Sims isn’t certain if broadcasters would be there. T-Mobile Park’s broadcast setup is spacious enough to keep proper distancing for people working. But other ballparks are more confined.
“We might have to call games off the monitor from Bellevue,” he said, referring to the location of Root’s studios. “You lose some flavor, but I can suck it up for 30 to 100 games or whatever it takes.”
If or when baseball returns, how we watch and enjoy it won’t be the same. It will look and feel different, and probably not necessarily for the better.
But it likely will be back, and as Sims says, “We should be so lucky to get to that point.”
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