There are a lot of things I have doubted about this MLB season — the idea that it would even happen being at the top of the list. Somewhere else on the list is the idea that the fake crowd noise gimmick would actually work. As if pumping in canned audio from MLB: The Show would help simulate the feeling of watching a regular baseball game in a regular year in a regular world.
Baseball appears to actually be happening, and against all odds, the crowd noise is shockingly effective. Watching the Indians broadcast last night — complete with the familiar voices of Matt Underwood and Rick Manning talking over a baseball game, sprinkled in with Andre Knott at seemingly random locations around the stadium — probably would not have been enough to fool my monkey brain into thinking I was watching a normal game on its own. But add in the low hum of a simulated crowd, walk-up music blaring, and the warm familiarity of John Adams pounding his drum from the outfield bleachers and suddenly I’m there.
Well, technically, I’m here on my couch and nowhere near there, but you get the idea. I’m there in spirit. That’s more connection than I have felt for most extra-curricular things in the past four months, and it’s all because some nameless man or woman is pressing some buttons on a control panel to pump in fake oo’s and aa’s when Mike Freeman hits a gapper.
John Adams’ drum, which has been played at Indians home games for nearly half a century, was added to The Show in 2019, so it’s not a total surprise that it showed up in the real deal. It was clearly on the audio, but it wasn’t captured very often in highlights. If you listen closely at the beginning of this Francisco Lindor homer you can hear it. And, bonus, you get to watch Francisco Lindor flick a baseball into the stands at the end of it.
.@LINDOR12BC LIFTOFF!!! #OurTribe pic.twitter.com/8fHFFELitA— FOX Sports Cleveland (@FOXSportsCLE) July 21, 2020
It’s still not a perfect experience, of course. Nothing beats the real thrum of a full sports stadium; the little quirks that come with packing 30,000 people into a single building. For one, there are not nearly enough loud groans from someone way too close to the booth, and if we don’t at least hear the “MARGARITAS” guy yell his way onto the broadcast once, was this whole thing wasn’t even worth it? It’s all just an illusion, of course. These aren’t real live people making the crowd sound alive, and there’s no way for anyone to really make an impact on the sound on the field — yet.
None of that takes away from the fact that the illusion worked to near perfection, and it’s probably only going to get better.
If anything, FOX Sports Ohio and the Indians did such a phenomenal job making the game feel real that the sudden shots of an empty stadium became that much more jarring, almost dystopian. The long wide-angle shot of “Cleveland Rocks” blaring to a non-existent crowd following the Tribe’s win was the kind of thing that starts a post-apocalypse montage.
While technically nothing more than a tune-up, last night’s game provided three solid hours of real-enough baseball that I really didn’t care. The rosters got weird at the end (at one point the Indians put their interpreter, Agustin Rivero, in right field as a nod to his dedication to the team), but we got to watch a starting pitcher go five innings. We got to see Francisco Lindor go yard, Tito make weird bullpen decisions, and Bradley Zimmer blur his way around second base.
A Game Thread for a Monday evening exhibition on this very blogged game reached over 180 comments — something typically reserved for a heated September game or the first couple days of a normal season’s opening week. But here we are in mid-July, aching for anything that looks like baseball. And thanks to hard work behind the scenes from way too many people that probably will never get the recognition they deserve, we got just that.
I still have my doubts that any of this is a good idea or that it will actually work for a full three months, but few things in the world right now look as beautiful as the words “Opening Day.”