Ain’t nothing like the real thing

ANGEL STADIUM of Anaheim … The good old days when there were actual fans in the stadium (Flickr/Ray LAC).

Before this simulated season of empty ballparks I would arrive at Angel games in Anaheim a little early. Anaheim Stadium is one of the older ballparks in the major leagues and isn’t known for being one of the most distinctive or charming. But I’d take a walk on the concourse around the stadium, get a look at the field and stands from beyond the outfield and get a feeling for the general mood of things. It was one of those things I took for granted at the time and now seems a million miles away.

This year MLB and Fox Sports gamely tried to meet the challenge of televising and making a major league baseball game entertaining without a live audience. The cardboard cutout fans placed in the seats for TV were certainly unnatural and strange, but maybe that was part of their purpose.  Perhaps wisely, a decision was made not to try to use “deep fake” technology and, rather than replicating a crowd, they would suggest one.  The obviously artificial nature of the attempt to portray fans was almost amateurish in a good way and could be seen as a gesture of respect. Sometimes it had a comical effect. Andrew McCutcheon had fun one game chatting with and throwing a ball to one of the kids. It bounced off his face and the young fan was unfazed. Line drive fouls would carom off eerily passive, silent, two-dimensional season ticket holders.

When they piped into the stadium the weird, tinny, crowd sounds taken from MLB video games, the reaction from everyone involved on the field was almost unanimous.  Angel third baseman Anthony Rendon likened it to “looking at a pizza but, you know, you’re smellin’ a hamburger.” Manager Joe Maddon heartily concurred, admiring Rendon’s analogy.  The Dodgers’ Pollock put it this way. “It’s weird. We hit a home run and the piped in fan noise goes nuts and we look at each other like ‘We’re the only one’s here.” For the players, the background noise was inducing a sensory confusion. For fans watching at home it was all still part of the show.

In late July, Fox Sports introduced a technology that would provide a virtual, cgi audience  for our viewing pleasure. It appears to have been guided by the same aesthetic that provides us a soundtrack with random, unprovoked applause and cheers. When a home run is hit a wave erupts in the outfield bleachers toward where the ball will land. Watching the computer generated figures copied and pasted into the stands unsuccessfully trying to simulate real fans is weirdly entertaining and glitches can make for hilarious moments. But for fans, the whole thing is starting to look like a video game.

Back when live, sentient humans attended ballgames and provided the soundtrack, during the sixth or seventh inning I would take a stroll downstairs to stand as close as I could to the home plate area. I always enjoyed what the more vocal, and sometimes knowledgeable, fans had to say in a voice loud enough to be heard by the hitter. Now I imagine the future, when the automated umpire gets hacked and starts missing pitches. The cgi crowd will start booing and yelling at him, signaling the cyber-security breach to the artificial intelligence that’s running the broadcast. If the breach is especially serious, or the game is in Philadelphia, maybe cyber-trash will be thrown onto the field. The computer, in turn, will inform the umpire behind the plate that, due to human error, he’ll have to take over calling balls and strikes until they can sort things out.  Now that’s entertainment!

Jerry Howard’s “Baseball Notes” is posted on Fridays during the baseball season.

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