Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.
— Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals
★ ★ ★
Reader, I must seek your forgiveness.
In early July, I urged the Rockies to adopt fan cardboard cutouts, which were common in the Chinese Professional Baseball League and the Korea Baseball Organization. It would allow fans to have a presence at games, I argued, and provide a source of fundraising for team-related charities.
Having watched games with actual cardboard cutouts, I’m here to confess that what looked like a good idea in theory is a nightmare in practice.
First, it distracts from the game itself. Take the Rangers’ new Globe Life Field. Baseball was back, and the Rockies were ready to hit, looking good in purple and gray. But it was impossible to avoid being distracted by the cutout of Ivan Rodriguez seated next to President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. To their left were Adrián Beltré and Governor Greg Abbott as well:
After watching a few innings on Friday night, I said, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” when I realized I had spent part of the game looking to see if my cousin, an avid Rangers fan, had bought a cutout. (She hadn’t.) On Saturday night, I wondered if Laura would be wearing that blue top for the entire season. (She still was on Sunday.) I wondered why children and pets were the same size as adult men, and I wondered if the grounds crew would, perhaps, move the cutouts around occasionally, both to give viewers different cutouts to see and to provide the cutouts with a new view of the field.
There’s also an aesthetic problem. The white frame around many of the cutouts, in addition to having a distressing uniformity, gives them a kind of aureole, which is great for a museum displaying classic art but is less appropriate for, say, Dodger Stadium. These are baseball fans, not martyrs (though in fairness, suffering is inherent to fandom).
Frankly, the cutouts are just creepy. They look like they might suddenly transform into a zombie army of cardboard cutouts. Rockies fans have enough to worry about with Max Muncy; they don’t need also to deal with a possible invasion of cardboard zombie Dodger fans.
It’s impossible to ignore the distracting random weirdness. Dodger fan Austin Donley’s cardboard head was almost severed by a Will Smith home run on Saturday. Adam Duvall hit a home run that struck the cardboard cutout of Jeff NcNeil’s dog, Willow, which seems like a very bad way to treat a very good dog. Athletics fans have made some interesting choices. There’s a cardboard cutout of the Astros’ mascot, Orbit, in a garbage can, various stuffed animals, and a cutout of a former mascot, Charlie-O the Mule:
(You can read more here about the various cardboard celebrities and general weirdness that made an appearance.)
For me, the novelty wore off fast. I found that I just wanted to watch baseball without distractions.
Consider, too, the issue of the cutouts’ appearance when the camera shoots them from behind and toward the field.
There’s an eerie echo of tombstones here. Baseball has enough challenges in 2020 without an unintentionally funeral atmosphere.
To be clear, the cutouts are bad, but the decision to use artificial fans is worse. Shanna McCarriston reported that Fox Sports had planned to use virtual fans in MLB broadcasts. Here they are at the Cubs-Brewers game:
Here's a look at the virtual fans at Wrigley Field for the Cubs-Brewers game on Fox. pic.twitter.com/rmA5lENFRH— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) July 25, 2020
Oh, and they do the wave.
I’m not alone in thinking this is a terrible idea. Nick Schwartz reports that the strategy was roundly ( condemned.
We don’t have to choose cardboard cutouts. The Diamondbacks, Orioles, Marlins, Yankees, and Cardinals have all said they will play in empty ballparks — and good for them. Currently, the Rockies are undecided though I assume that’s because they hope to have real fans occupy Coors Field. But when it comes to the cutouts, they should hold fast in rejecting a terrible idea.
Sean Doolittle was right: We haven’t yet earned the return of sports. For me, the inclusion of fictional fans is an attempt to hide that reality.
Just go with empty seats in 2020. Keep the focus on the game. Take that money, put on your best Rockies gear and make a donation to charity in honor of your favorite Rockie. Nothing that happens when playing baseball during a pandemic is normal: not the coaching staff wearing face coverings, not the touchless celebrations, not the absence of sunflower seeds and chewing tobacco. We have yet to understand the ways in which living through a pandemic will change all our lives.
It turns out that in 2020, fans don’t need to be present; rather, they need to acknowledge through their absence how not normal this time is.