By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
One of my favorite times to show up at a sporting event as a member of the media or worker is the period before the gates are even open. There’s usually some music playing, and the building has its sense of anticipation in the air. What might we see in the next few hours?
That feeling in the atmosphere, of course, changes as soon as the doors open and fans charge through the turnstiles. However, nothing like that happens at a major league baseball game these days, because there are no fans admitted through the door.
Welcome to Major League Baseball, 2020 edition.
I certainly wanted to be here to see a bit of local sports history. As many of you know, major league teams haven’t played a game that counted in our fair city since the Federal League team disbanded in 1915 – and I don’t think anyone that went to one of those games will show up here. But more importantly, I was curious about how everything worked.
Somehow, after an unimaginable amount of effort, it does work. The Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays did play on Saturday night, even if virtually no one could watch in person. The last game I covered here was on June 7, 2017 – a Georgetown Cup game with a handful of fans bouncing around a mostly empty stadium. That’s to be expected at the high school level. It’s odd, then, to see even fewer people rattle around a stadium like this for major league baseball.
Here, then, are some a few observations about how the night went:
*I wasn’t even at the ballpark when the first difference popped out. When I went around the corner to get on Seneca Street, about eight fans were lined up on the curb – all hoping that someone would hit a ball over the left-field screen. Most had Blue Jay shirts on. I assume they were chased away by the authorities at some point.
*The Blue Jays had sent me a list of regulations and conditions for covering a game in Sahlen Field. They also emailed a medical questionnaire, which I had to fill out less than three hours before my arrival. When I arrived at the media entrance on Swan Street, I filled out another statement about my physical condition, and I had my temperature taken (for the record, 97 degrees). I also signed an assumption of risk document. It all was a reasonable process under the circumstances.
*There are about 25 stations set up in the media area, which is located above the walkway in the stadium’s lower bowl. My space was directly behind home plate, above the top row of seats for fans in normal circumstances. I had lots and lots of room – you could have fit four reporters in my space in the pre-pandemic days. My view of fly balls was cut off by the upper deck, but, really, I had nothing to complain about.
*Speaking of the media, there was one rare sight concerning that group Saturday night. Most reporters brown-bagged it for dinner. Drinks and light snacks were available, period. Naturally, the concession stands were closed too. I can report that my Wegmans’ sub was delicious.
*Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball used to be on April 15. It was delayed until Friday, and then was transformed to Jackie Robinson Weekend. That means everyone on the field wore No. 42. The event comes after some games had been cancelled earlier in the week in reaction to the incident in Wisconsin. It’s a great tribute no matter when it is held, but it seems particularly poignant right now. I will add, selfishly, though, that scorekeeping isn’t easy when everyone has the same number – especially when the fielders start moving around for defensive shifts, or when a relief pitcher starts throwing in the bullpen.
*And along those lines, of the major sports, only in baseball could everyone wear the same number and not leave everyone dazed and confused. Can you imagine watching a hockey game under those conditions?
*I’m not sure I’ve ever been more aware of sound at a sporting event. That’s because the fans’ buzz drowns so much out. I could hear the Orioles’ bench (and the players sitting in the stands behind it) cheering after a pitcher got out of a tough jam. I could hear Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a ball at something like 115 miles per hour, and I could hear it crash against the wall in left field. Vlad only had time to get to first. In Boston, it might have gone through the Green Monster and on to the Massachusetts Turnpike. I could hear the right fielder call for a pop-up. When the game was over, it was really over – music played for a few minutes, followed by silence. Almost spooky.
While the between-innings music seems almost normal (naturally, with a Canadian team here, we got to hear some Rush), the canned applause doesn’t come off particularly well. It works better on TV, frankly, which probably is the idea, but it seems forced in person. There was an odd moment when Randel Grichuk singled to right but got thrown out stretching it to a double. I heard cheers come out of the loudspeakers after the hit/out. It was a little awkward.
(It reminds me of the time that Dominik Hasek had gotten himself into trouble with the Sabre fans for something he said. Someone on the team took no chances, and played the sounds of cheering over the speakers to mix in with the actual boos when he was introduced on Opening Night.)
*The signage around the ballpark is funny to see. TD Bank (Toronto Dominion to us old-timers) has its logo plastered in some places. There are ads for businesses that no one in Buffalo would know (Pinty’s? Sobeys?). Westjet has taken over the party deck in right and the wall on top of the parking garage in right. Speaking of the garage, all of the openings that face the field have been boarded up so that someone can’t get a free peek inside – which gives it a slight abandoned building look.
The scoreboard, meanwhile, sticks to basics – lineups, line score, photographs of the batters. In other words, no ads. However, the lineups have last name, position, and … OPS. Batting average takes another bullet as it heads toward, well, not extinction but at least relative obscurity.
*Yes, “O.K., Blue Jays” was played in the seventh inning stretch. Some traditions can cross international boundaries.
*As for the game, the Blue Jays did beat the Orioles, 5-0. I suppose the story of the game was Taijuan Walker, a pitcher was just acquired from the Mariners. Walker, sporting No. 0, appropriately allowed no runs in six innings. Toronto has an eye on one of the wild-card spots this season, and that sort of performance is welcome.
The amount of shifting that goes on at a major-league game is enormous these days – even between pitches. The Orioles certainly hit more than their share of balls right at fielders. That’s partly by defensive design, partly by bad luck. Whenever I see a major league game, I remember the words of a friend about the athleticism of the fielders: “It’s a tough place to get a hit.”
*All of the pregame and postgame interviews are done via Zoom. Most of the Toronto media stays in Ontario for these games and watches on television. They hop on the Zoom feed after the game and then write from there. That makes it tough to obtain exclusive interviews, but they don’t have to spend two months covering baseball everywhere but at home.
*It would be really interesting, of course, to see what the rest of Sahlen Field looks like. Media members are prohibited from both clubhouses for obvious reasons. Let’s hope they don’t tear down such areas five seconds after the last out of the final home game (it appears that any playoff games will be held in a warm-weather, neutral site bubble), so others can get a little look at it.
After all, we probably won’t get the chance to host another big league game until the next pandemic. And let’s hope that never happens.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)