Be grateful baseball is back on TV, no matter how it looks

There’s still much for viewers to get accustomed to, such as fake noise and even fake fans. But as long as the game is real, let’s rejoice in its return.

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Hopefully, the announcers can put viewers at ease amid the emptiness. They’re the ones who’ll be responsible for making the broadcasts as normal as possible.

Hopefully, the announcers can put viewers at ease amid the emptiness. They’re the ones who’ll be responsible for making the broadcasts as normal as possible.

Quinn Harris/Getty Images

So this is what pandemic baseball looks like on TV.

I’ll take it.

Hey, it beats the alternative of no baseball. I can’t recall watching exhibition games as intently as I did this week. It helped that the regulars stayed in longer than usual, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Warm bodies in major-league uniforms, that was enough to keep my interest.

I wasn’t even bothered by the elements of a pandemic broadcast. Fake crowd noise? Turn it up. Cardboard cutouts of fans? The more, the merrier. Phantom high-fives? Well, I saw many players not playing by the rules and handing them out. But the fake ones weren’t the strangest thing I saw.

When’s the last time you saw a foul ball roll aimlessly in an aisle filled with cutouts of people? The cameras caught that during a Giants-Athletics game. A foul ball without captors vying for it is like a hot dog vendor passing out only buns. A key piece in the equation is missing.

But a lot of things are going to be missing this season. As long as the game looks the same — and so far it does — we’ll carry on.

There’s still much for viewers to get accustomed to. How long will it take for the look of an empty, massive ballpark to become less jarring? Will we notice a difference in broadcasts of games at home and on the road, where your team has less control of the presentation? Will field reporters find a suitable role when they can’t report from the field?

And the biggest question of all: How will viewers react to the fake crowd noise?

Broadcasts can’t hide an empty stadium — unless you’re Fox (more on that in a minute). Cameras will find swaths of empty seats in baseball broadcasts more than other sports. Think of all the views with seats behind them: batter stepping into the box, pitcher throwing to first for a pickoff, fly balls hit to the outfield and, of course, every pitch at most ballparks.

It’s going to look and feel weird for a while. But Fox thinks it has a solution: virtual fans. The network will debut the augmented reality Saturday with its tripleheader, which begins with Brewers-Cubs at Wrigley Field. It looks better than an empty stadium, despite it being somewhat cartoonish. Whether it flies with fans is another matter.

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Fox will debut virtual fans with its tripleheader Saturday, beginning with Brewers-Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Fox

For the rest of the baseball broadcasting world, hopefully the announcers can put viewers at ease amid the emptiness. They’re the ones who’ll be responsible for making the experience as normal as possible. The Cubs and White Sox crews were up to the task in their exhibition games, bubbling with enthusiasm about being back in the booth.

Their job figures to be trickier for road games, in which they’ll be at the mercy of the many monitors in their home booth. (Imagine a storm in Chicago affecting the broadcast of a game in Pittsburgh.) If it feels odd calling a game without fans in the stands, it might feel eerie calling a game without anyone else in the ballpark. It’ll be like when they auditioned for a job, calling a recorded game in a studio.

It appears field reporters will have different job descriptions during pandemic baseball. Relegated to the stands, they can offer anecdotes and join the announcers’ conversation, but unless they’ll be allowed to Zoom with someone during a game, they’ll be hard-pressed to report something. They’ll provide another voice and vantage point, but they’ll have to be creative.

Then there’s the noise. It has been the hottest hot-button topic in sports broadcasting since the notion of fanless games arose. It’s a paradox for your brain, but it’s a necessary one. These games are now made-for-TV events, and the most natural part of a broadcast is the murmur of a crowd. Despite the contradiction for your senses, you’ll get used to it. Think of it as white noise. (We all could use it.)

That’s fine when the action is light. Things can get strange when something of import happens. That Giants-Athletics game had the most excited fake crowd I ever heard. Innings of a Marlins-Braves game ended with a rousing ovation from the phony faithful. It can be enough to roll your eyes.

But, look, big outs and home runs need to be celebrated. And if it’s fabricated or simulated, so what? This season is a fabrication. But it’s being played — for now, at least — and I, for one, am willing to suspend belief for the pleasure of watching it.

Remote patrol

  • New Bulls play-by-play voice Adam Amin will make his Fox Sports debut at noon Saturday, when he calls the Brewers-Cubs game with former Cub Eric Karros. Neither will be at Wrigley Field. Amin will work out of the Big Ten Network studios in Chicago, and Karros will be in Los Angeles.
  • The Cubs are scheduled for one additional Fox appearance, Aug. 6 at the Royals. The Sox’ only appearance is the “Field of Dreams” game Aug. 13 against the Cardinals. The Cubs and Sox are scheduled for three games each on Fox Sports 1.
  • The Cubs also are scheduled for two appearances on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” both against the Cardinals: Aug. 9 in St. Louis and Sept. 6 at Wrigley Field. Play-by-play voice Matt Vasgersian, analyst Alex Rodriguez and reporter Buster Olney return.
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