Herb Vincent closes his eyes and drifts back a half-century, to his boyhood bedroom in North Little Rock, Ark. He’s 9, trying to stay awake deep into the night, the transistor radio tuned to distant KMOX in St. Louis, listening to Cardinals baseball.
Bob Gibson’s shutouts, Lou Brock’s stolen bases and Joe Torre’s slugging made for sweet dreams. What he heard between pitches sounded even better.
“The muffled murmur of the crowd,” said Vincent, the associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. “It was like the soundtrack of the summer.”
“I can hear it right now. You can make out a voice sometimes, maybe a peanut vendor or a yell,” he said. “It’s soothing, it’s reassuring.”
Probably speaking for fans all over these days, he added: “I don’t know what it’s going to sound like this year.”
No one does, really.
Major League Baseball began its most bizarre season ever Thursday night, a 60-game sprint rather than the traditional 162-game marathon, a skewed schedule cut and carved around a coronavirus pandemic that threatened to silence the bats and balls all year.
A different model than the NBA and NHL, too. Rather than keeping players and club personnel sealed in a bubble environment, baseball teams will fly around the country, raising more health concerns.
Still, that didn’t prevent young Washington star Juan Soto from testing positive for the virus. He was absent when the World Series champion Nationals hosted the New York Yankees in this year’s delayed opener.
With COVID-19 cases trending higher in every state with an MLB team except Arizona, a most fitting person threw out the ceremonial first ball in Washington: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
“I used to play baseball as a young boy,” Fauci, 79, told CNN. “I hope I don’t bounce it too much.”
He did, and way wide, not that anyone heckled him. Moments later, Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton hit the first home run of the season, a quiet shot off Washington ace Max Scherzer.
Fans weren’t be permitted at Nationals Park, where the Yankees won 4-1 in a game halted because of rain, or at Dodger Stadium, where Los Angeles topped San Francisco 8-1.
Or at any field, in fact. While some teams expressed hope of allowing spectators at some point, Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter said they’d skip that idea.
“I think it would be irresponsible to even think about that right now when you look at the numbers in South Florida,” said Jeter, the former Yankees great. “At this particular time we’re not thinking about bringing fans back.”
Leaving them to their own devices.
Whether you’re a two-screen fan tracking every four-seam fastball on your iPhone while instantly updating VORP and WAR stats on your tablet, or merely checking the next-day boxscore of your local team in the newspaper, make no mistake: This will look, sound and be odd from the start.
“Going to be 2020 coronavirus baseball,” Yankees star pitcher Gerrit Cole said.
Instead of actual fans, cardboard cutouts of their heads will fill many seats – Fox will fill stadiums with virtual fans for their national broadcasts. Players must stay socially distanced in the dugout, scattering into the stands if necessary. Some stars, such as San Francisco catcher Buster Posey, aren’t playing at all because of health risks to themselves and their families.
Social justice also came to the middle of the diamond. A Black Lives Matter stencil will appear on pitchers’ mounds across the majors during the opening weekend. Dodgers star Mookie Betts and some Giants knelt during the national anthem.
A few new rules are in play. Extra innings will begin with an automatic runner on second base, just like softball games in Central Park.
And hours before the first pitch, MLB announced it would expand the playoff field this year, from 10 teams to a whopping 16 of the 30 clubs.
Still, to fantasy leaguers who’ve had their lives disrupted without a daily fix of games and more casual viewers who might catch an inning between their late-night TV news and a “Law & Order” rerun, zany baseball is better than zero baseball.
“I just can’t wait for the games to begin – for the story of this strange season to move forward from beginning to middle to end – so there is some semblance of everyday life returning,” noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
“And then I will leave to you and the experts to figure out the hard stuff – asterisks, etc., etc. – while I revert to my 7-year-old self, just happy to follow each game!” she said.
Los Angeles ace Clayton Kershaw had hoped to take part, but he was scratched from the opener because of back issues. And the Arizona Diamondbacks announced that a Venezuelan scout who worked in the Dominican Republic had died of COVID-19.
When every team swings into action, all sides were hoping for something resembling normalcy.
As much as the action, it’s the timeless rhythm of the game that attracts many. Without getting too James Earl Jones-ish from the “Field of Dreams” cornfield, the game’s soundtrack is a key piece of the sport’s fabric.
Which is why baseball is providing stadium sound engineers with about 75 effects from its official video game – MLB The Show – to amplify the atmosphere, both at the ballpark and for broadcasts.
A mixed bag, so far.
All fine with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch at empty Yankee Stadium during a recent exhibition game. But the familiar rustle of fans at Oracle Park in San Francisco came across more like a bunch of bees buzzing and scared off the seagulls that perch in the upper deck.
Washington pitcher Patrick Corbin said it sounded a little more realistic at Nationals Park. Sort of.
“But then you look in the stands and no one’s there, so that’s always a little strange,” he said.
Broadcasters are dealing with the same scenario.
“We are not looking to fool anybody. We realize there’s no fans there,” ESPN producer Mark Gross said. But adding a little artificial crowd noise “below the announcers just seems to make it work and doesn’t sound quite so hollow when we are doing the games.”
Star-turned-ESPN announcer Alex Rodriguez added: “The abnormal has become the normal.”
“It’s a year of adjustments, and I think baseball becomes the comfort food that Americans and people in this country want right now,” he said.
Makes sense to Vincent, 59. Living and working around Birmingham, Ala., he’s eager to root for the Cardinals.
And to hear a most comforting echo.
“That sound between a 2-0 and a 2-1 pitch. In the fourth inning. On a Wednesday night in June,” he said. “It’s that sound, it’s the summer sound.”