Published July 31st, 2020 at 6:00 AM
On Tuesday night, Minute Maid Park in Houston was buzzing. Down three runs and with two Dodgers on base in the top of the eighth, the Astros needed to get out of the inning.
Fox Sports play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt set the scene:
“The cardboard cutouts are on their feet. The pitch.”
Baseball is back and, to put it simply, it’s both quite strange and totally awesome.
Last month, commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB Players Association agreed to an abbreviated, geographically constrained 60-game season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams will just play divisional opponents, along with the teams of the opposite league’s corresponding division.
The result? Not a marathon, but a sprint through the familiar foes and interleague matchups that cuts down travel time and, barring no more incidents like this week’s COVID breakout among the Miami Marlins, a treat for starving sports fans.
Other tweaks to America’s pastime in 2020 include a universal designated hitter, delayed trade deadline and a COVID-19-specific inactive list.
Oh — and no fans.
For baseball, a sport in which the entire crowd rises to its feet to sing a song about attending the game, the no-fan policy is understandably tough to ignore. The second line of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” specifically mentions “the crowd.”
While the peanut gallery picks at cracker jacks from the couch, MLB clubs are doing their best to make things feel a bit more normal for the fans and players alike.
The buzz of the stadium in Houston? All crowd reactions, ambient audience sound, even the boos came from someone in a control room, ready to push exactly the right buttons at exactly the right time. So instead of your favorite beer man hawking a cold one loud enough for field mics to pick up, it’s a soundboard operator with a stellar understanding of how the game of baseball makes fans feel.
Tonight in Kansas City, just like in Cleveland and in Detroit, the Royals will take the field to the roar of video game sound effects and the frozen stares of cardboard faces at 7:05 p.m. It’s the home opener and first of three games against the White Sox, plus the first look at a (mostly) empty Kauffman Stadium.
Royals social media accounts indicate that fans including Mayor Quinton Lucas, actor Paul Rudd, Negro Leagues legend and the MLB’s first black coach Buck O’Neil, even a few golden retriever cutouts will be in attendance.
The home opener won’t feel quite the same for Paul Long and Everett Lanter, a couple of local die hards, who have consistently found a way out of work or school over the years for a first look at the Royals in the cozy confines.
Long, who rose to local fame as a fan during the 2014 and 2015 postseason runs for dressing up in a cat wrestling singlet, admits he is curious about what it takes to get a cardboard cutout out at the stadium. He’s been to as many home openers as he can remember, dating back to the days before Ken Harvey and 2003 Rookie of the Year Ángel Berroa.
“Everyone knows it’s a sacred day,” says the 2016 Royals co-Fan of the Year. “You get to be with friends, other community members and connect with people who haven’t seen each other in six months. This day was off limits because we were all going to go (hard) out at Kauffman.”
This year, Long is especially excited for the Royals’ local broadcast and how “The K” will come off without the team’s most loyal supporters in the stands.
“If you’re letting (fake crowd noise) annoy you, well then you probably just let things annoy you,” Long said, comparing the piped-in ambient crowd noise to the box fan he sleeps with at night.
As for the cat suit, it only comes out for the biggest occasions. For comfort’s sake, don’t expect Long in the singlet for the stay-at-home opener from the sofa.
“I’ll be snuggled up with my Royals blanket, chilling and enjoying an adult beverage,” he says. “Most likely a piña colada.”
Lanter estimates that he’s been to around 80% of Royals home openers dating back to when he skipped school for his first in 1988. A father of three, Everett plans to crack a few beers and watch with his wife and kids.
“I’m likely to sit and watch the whole thing,” Lanter said. “That’s the plan with the remainder of the games.”
A former season ticket holder, Lanter wasn’t lost without sports at the start of summer, but when Royals intrasquad scrimmages started popping up live on Facebook, he couldn’t put his phone down.
As for the fake crowd noise, Lanter doesn’t mind. He’s been to Royals games that have been, well, pretty quiet.
“If you’ve been a Royals fan for a long period of time, you’re kind of used to some of those small crowds — the weekday crowds,” Lanter said, before filing through an impressive memory bank of home opener high and lowlights through the years.
There was left fielder Alex Gordon’s major league debut in 2007, a few years later when former starter Luke Hochevar gave up seven first-inning runs before fans were even out of the parking lot, and of course raising the American League and World Series Champion flags in 2015 and 2016.
“There are a lot of memories when you walk into the ballpark. I remember being there as a kid, as a teenager, just a few years ago,” Lanter said. “All of those memories come back.”
Both Long and Lanter have been all over baseball’s return. Whether it’s watching the game of cat and mouse between pitcher and hitter more closely, or keeping an ear out for the now audible chatter between opposing dugouts, they have kept tabs on primetime games around the league in addition to the boys in blue.
On the field, they’re especially looking forward to seeing the Royals young crop of talent getting their big-league chance under a little less pressure with no fans in the stands.
The Royals 30-man roster currently features 14 players age 26 or younger, including flamethrowers fresh off the farm club like right hander Josh Staumont or the young Royal with the most potential, according to Long, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi.
A combination of sore arms from the MLB’s midsummer return, the scheduled 60-game sprint and expanded 30-man rosters has resulted in a slew of debuts across the league.
For example, during Tuesday night’s star-studded game in Houston, the Astros debuted an eighth rookie, breaking an opening week record dating back to 1906.
The shortened season and eager young talent gives fans like Lanter, who has seen teams get hot at just the right time, that old familiar sense of opening day optimism — even if it is from his own living room.
“There are new guys that you’re seeing for the first time in some cases, or guys that are looking to build on success from the previous year who aren’t tainted by months of losing yet,” he notes.
“It’s that hope that you always have.”