We already know that baseball in 2020 (should we get to baseball in 2020) is going to be weird with players practicing social distancing and breaking old habits. (So long, spitting.) Perhaps the weirdest of the weird will be games played in empty stadiums. And perhaps there are strategies to mitigate this.
In a media availability on Friday, Bud Black was asked if playing in empty stadiums would have an impact. Here’s what he said:
We’ll have to turn back the clock to certain A Ball games and other games we played in as amateurs or professionals. Guys have been exposed to that to some degree, maybe not on a regular basis that’s going to happen at least initially.
Black pointed out that playing before small crowds isn’t new to the Rockies. To illustrate, he pointed to some extra-innings games, rain-delayed games, some ballparks, and game times that led to poor attendance.
But he stressed flexibility. “Players have a great ability to adjust to their surroundings,” Black said, “and I suspect that the players will adjust rather quickly, knowing that these games are televised. There’s probably a larger viewership than ever before . . . . They know that they’re being watched.”
Scott Oberg knows playing without fans is going to be different. “We definitely won’t be able to build off of the energy of the crowd,” he said.
However, like Black, he sees the team as flexible:
I think the pure competitiveness that the guys have when we take the field is going to be there. It’s definitely going to feel different for the guys when we’re out there, but that competitiveness is going to be there. The guys in the dugout and the seats, they’re going to be engaged, just like they normally would. They’re going to be excited when we get a two-out RBI. They’ll be excited when we get that last punch out to end an inning. It’ll be different, but some of it, we may have to create ourselves.
While both Black’s and Oberg’s comments are correct — the Rockies have had some experience with this — they also overlooked the best answer: The 2016 Hartford Yard Goats.
The 2016 Yard Goats: Road warriors
That team included Ryan McMahon, Germán Márquez, Antonio Senzatela, Raimel Tapia, David Dahl, Kyle Freeland, Yency Almonte as well as old friends Pat Valaika, Tyler Anderson, and Sam Howard. They got practice with playing in empty stadiums when their own home stadium, Dunkin’ Donuts Park, was not finished. Instead, this team lived on the road, playing its first 29 games away, playing extra games at opponents’ parks, and finally adopting Dodd Satdium, which was 49 miles from Hartford, as their home field.
Of the experience, David Dahl says, succinctly, “It sucked.” He added, “So our ‘home games’ were in New Hampshire, and they didn’t open games to fans. It was just some girlfriends and scouts. It was brutal. It felt like practice games on the back fields.”
McMahon remembers, “You couldn’t get into a routine.” Players spent the season living out of their suitcases and had trouble finding healthy food. A 7:00 pm game meant getting in the bus around noon so that players had time to get in their daily training.
Here’s how Gary Santiello of the New York Times described a typical 2016 Yard Goats “home” game:
The most recent games in Manchester were typical of home games in another team’s park. The large video board in center field was dark. Two small auxiliary scoreboards provided only the most basic game information. One concession stand was open, with limited offerings. During lulls in the action, the hum of the stadium’s electrical infrastructure was audible along the concourse. Even with free admission, no more than 20 fans were in attendance.
That team logged 10,000 miles by bus, going 76-67.
(Incidentally, the data indicate that empty stadiums do affect game outcomes — at least initially — because fans are a home-field advantage, the referee is less partial, and the games seem to lose much of their urgency.)
As fans, it’s time for us to consider the possibilities so that the the 2016 Yard Goats don’t feel like they’re repeating history, and we need to let the Rockies know we’re with them, even if we can’t be at Coors Field.
Alternative to silence: Artificial crowd noise
One possibility is piping in artificial crowd noise, which has been used in Hungarian soccer, CPBL and KBO baseball, and Australian rugby. Whether this is an effective strategy remains open to debate.
Fox MLB announcer Joe Buck is an advocate: “If people are at home experiencing crowd noise, it brings them into the stadium. If you take that out altogether and it’s just an announcer talking, you could be watching C-SPAN . . . and it would be the same thing.”
Not all fans agree. According to a Morning Consult poll, forty percent of self-identified sports fans believe watching a game in an empty stadium with artificial crowd noise would make the game less enjoyable; just 16 percent thought it was a good idea. (You can read why Paul Lukas opposes it here.)
AT&T SportsNet play-by-play commentator Drew Goodman said on a recent podcast that they had not yet discussed the possibility.
Alternatives to empty seats
German soccer teams have filled empty seats with cardboard cutouts of fans, who paid just over $20 to have their photograph converted into a Pappkameraden, or “cardboard companion.” Taiwan’s CPBL and Korea’s KBO have also used cardboard fans.
On occasion, the KBO has used stuffed animals to fill seats:
Packed house in Daejon tonight! #HanwhaEagles pic.twitter.com/0eLkZqMT1R— Daniel Kim 대니얼 김 (@DanielKimW) May 27, 2020
(Then there was South Korean soccer’s FC Seoul that was fined for using sex dolls to fill empty seats.)
Coors Field cutouts
No one knows yet if there are plans for Coors Field. The Rockies are, apparently, hopeful to have fans attend games, sending this email to season ticket holders:
But, who knows? In the end, COVID-19 will dictate what happens this season.
As someone with an underlying condition, attending a game is out of the question for me in the near term, and at this point, I’m ambivalent about artificial crowd noise. However, a cardboard cutout is something I could get behind. The As and Giants are doing this, and I’m here to argue that the Rockies should as well, especially given that they’ll be playing both of these teams in their modified 2020 schedule.
When asked on Twitter about the possibility of cardboard cutouts at Coors, @Rockies answered
That has been discussed but no decision has been made yet. We will keep you updated.— Colorado Rockies (@Rockies) July 2, 2020
Let’s do this, Rockies.
Let’s add cardboard cutouts of fans to Coors Field. We’ve got some traumatized 2016 Yard Goats on this team. Let’s not make them relive that season. Maybe some cardboard fans would be a reminder to the Rockies that there are still a lot of us behind this team, even if we can’t be there.