A dear friend, a baseball purist in his late 70s, called recently. He was distressed.
“For the first time in 70 years,” he said, “I don’t care about baseball.”
He wasn’t angry. He was hurt and sad that the game he loves wasn’t delivering — it had somehow let him down. I tried to explain that this wasn’t the fault of the game; COVID-19 was to blame. It has changed everything in and around baseball — it has changed how we play, watch, perceive and consume the game. It has changed how we all write, report and broadcast the game.
“Everything is hard now,” said Indians manager Tito Francona, who is as gregarious as it gets.
So is Rays manager Kevin Cash, who said of the experience this year, “This isn’t fun.”
They are not complaining. And you’ll get no complaints here, no sympathy required. I remain the luckiest man on earth. I get paid to write about baseball and broadcast games a couple of nights a week. I am so grateful that I get to watch 15 games a night instead of another episode of “Succession” — which is brilliant and depressing.
But Cash is right. It hasn’t been nearly as much fun. No fans in the stands, players who have opted out of the season, the many others who have been injured, the mangling of the schedule due to coronavirus outbreaks (mostly notably with the Marlins and the Cardinals), making up rules on the fly and the threat that the season could end any day, perhaps without warning. And having to cover all of this from home has made it so much more difficult. Most players would rather play at home. I am longing for a road game.
There is no substitute for being at the ballpark. The things you see there, the things you learn there, can’t be found watching on TV, on your computer or even in the beloved box scores. It’s just not the same without fans in the stands; we have underrated and understated their importance to the game. The energy, the atmosphere that a crowd brings is clearly missing, and it has affected many players, including the Reds’ Eugenio Suarez and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, who, like many, feed off the passion of the fans.
Before this season, I had never even heard of Zoom. Now I use it — with help — every day. But it’s just not the same as speaking to another human being face-to-face. My favorite part of every game is to arrive at the ballpark at 1:30 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game in case someone is taking early hitting or working out at a new position.
I really miss talking to the players before the game, standing at the batting cage and watching Mike Trout tear holes in the sky with line drives, marveling at the way Fernando Tatis Jr. moves at that size and being dazzled by the violent and precise stuff that Shane Bieber brings to the mound.
Now I am strapped into my home office, with a new at-home broadcasting system, which arrived shortly after I had finally begun to understand the one that I’ve had for the past 20 years. I am irreversibly entangled in my office chair amid a web of wires and cords — I feel as if I’m trapped inside an old golf ball. It also didn’t help that I attempted to do one game without air conditioning in my office. I felt like I did nine innings from inside a trouser press.
And I have been by myself, which is lonely. It is terrifying given that I’m 63 and have absolutely no technical savvy. There is no engineer in the room to help me if something goes wrong, which it often does. I have uttered the phrases “Can you see me?” and “Can you hear me?” into my microphone a thousand times the past two months, like a man lost in a cave. And I usually hear only silence in my ears.
Some TV game producers insist that the open to any broadcast is the most important thing; nail the open, the rest is easy. On Aug. 18, during the open for the Rays-Yankees game, two seconds into my explanation of how the Yankees have dealt with a variety of problems this season, the iPad camera in my office studio went out. My audio did not, so I kept talking. I looked like a skeleton floating over a black background, an apparition, as play-by-play man Karl Ravech and analyst Eduardo Perez justifiably laughed out loud at the worst of my many technical issues. I finished my 15-second open in the dark, which was appropriate given that the game has been operating in the dark for months.
Ravy is broadcasting from the ESPN studio in Connecticut, 375 miles away from my house. Eduardo is at his home in Miami, 1,100 miles from my house. Other times the game has been 3,000 miles away.
We have worked together in the booth for five years. We have great chemistry. We understand each other’s body language. We can anticipate when someone wants to talk, but when you’re hundreds of miles away and there is a delay, well, it’s easy to verbally barge into someone, as I did multiple times on opening night this year. The only question was whether it was a block or a charge. Most times, it was a charge.
To cover a game on TV without being there is a challenge. When you’re at the game, with the action right in front of you, you can see if the center fielder got a great jump on the ball or if he broke in slightly instead of back. The constant shifting of the infielders is hard to see unless you’re there. And it is impossible, from home, to watch the right fielder charge the ball while simultaneously watching the runner rounding third base. Everything is easier at the park except going to the can. Now I just walk 6 feet rather racing out of the press box and getting in and out of the bathroom as efficiently as a cat burglar.
Still, ratings are good, so I am worried that TV executives will see that we can capably call a game from home and wonder why we need to spend all that money to send the crew to the site. As a writer, I wonder when I will be allowed into the clubhouse again. There have been several stories this season — how the COVID-19 outbreak spread among the Marlins and Cardinals, and exactly what happened when Indians pitchers Mike Clevinger (since traded to the Padres) and Zach Plesac broke curfew — that would have been covered in greater detail and with greater accuracy if the media were allowed in the clubhouse to talk to the players.
I am worried that the way we’re covering the game is the way that some of our brilliant new executives have been evaluating the game for the past five or so years: We have stopped watching the games. Too many of our answers come from a computer screen, a spreadsheet, a set of statistics rather that what is happening right in front of us on the field. The human element has been replaced by advanced metrics, or as Angels manager Joe Maddon says, “The art has been taken out of the game.”
We don’t see, or care about, first-step quickness on a route by an outfielder, or an infielder who always knows what’s going to happen one step ahead of everyone else. We don’t understand that Max Scherzer, and few others, are calling the game from the mound, rather than having a catcher look into the dugout for the right pitch to call. We care more about a catcher framing a pitch than actually catching a pitch. And apparently we don’t care about the craft of baserunning, because it is, by far, the worst I’ve seen in 41 years of covering the game.
But I can put up with it. I just want to watch and work games, be it from home or the ballpark. I can’t wait to see what a free-for-all it’s going to be down the stretch with 16 playoff spots in play. Every game, every pitch will matter. An unforgettable October is ahead: If all postseason series go the limit, there will be 65 playoff games in October.
I can’t wait. It’s going to be great, no matter how difficult and different things might be. All I ask is that during my 15-second open, my iPad stays on so I am no longer in the dark.