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The last time the San Diego Padres made it to the World Series was in 1998. Early in the season, a family friend had chaperoned me and a fellow 7th grader to an interleague game at Qualcomm Stadium against the Seattle Mariners. Our tickets sat us in the center field bleachers, within jeering distance of Mariners all-star Ken Griffey Jr. “Griffey sucks!” I screamed for innings at the top of my prepubescent contralto, to the amusement of no one but myself. At one point, he turned directly toward me and glared, a gesture I received with a confused mixture of pride and shame. Later, I vomited an unholy cocktail of pink lemonade, hot dogs, and soft serve into a trash can; a passerby quipped “Go home, you’re drunk!,” and for a few seconds I was the object of pure, unforced laughter. The Padres lost, as they often did, but it was a hell of a day at the ballpark.
I never much enjoyed watching baseball on television until this past summer, when the freedom of an academic schedule and the paralysis of the pandemic converged to find me spending most afternoons and evenings projecting MLB TV onto my bedroom wall. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred had approved a truncated 60-game season to begin at the end of July, with some caveats, including limited travel for players, social distancing, and frequent testing for Covid-19. For me this has been a chiefly solitary endeavor: without my nuclear family, most of whom are quarantined in San Diego, or other faces in the crowd, commentators Don Orsillo and Mark Grant, a former Padres pitcher, have been my most constant companions.
In silence, the game is not quite devoid of meaning, but uncomfortably close
The incessant chatter of play-by-play — intended to explicate, analyze, and contextualize with expert opinion, statistics, and records comically specific and obscure — is an integral part of baseball. To “call” a game is to serve as its narrator, but one who is more unreliable than omniscient, both model and reproduction of the genre of archetypally male banter known as “sports talk.” It is unlikely that mansplaining would exist in its current form without baseball commentary, which began airing on the radio in 1921. Heroic announcers — the Dodgers’ Vin Scully, the Cubs’ Harry Caray, former Yankee Phil Rizzuto — absorb the function of a team’s superego: something paternal, almost godlike yet still mortal, the ideal fan. It is not unusual for fans to tune in to broadcasts on headphones while present at a game. For most of my adult life, I have resisted the lure of this discourse community and the camaraderie that comes with it, but presently deprived of small talk, Orsillo and Grant have grown on me like two baritone sidekicks. Once acquainted with the rules, the game is legible without commentary, but it becomes a different kind of spectacle — purely visual, and without the regular displays of brute force or graceful choreography that attract fans to football or basketball. In silence, the game is not quite devoid of meaning, but uncomfortably close.
When the delayed season commenced this July, the MLB — taking a cue from European football leagues, which returned to stadiums a month earlier — decided to pipe in crowd noise to empty stands. The league requires that the home team provide “ambient and reactionary background audio” for every game — sourced, appropriately, from the Playstation game MLB: The Show. Sony provided each team with 75 samples of reactions and effects, which can be mixed with the live accompaniment of players’ walk-on tracks and the traditional organ fills (the Padres are one of few teams to still employ a live organist). These sounds fall discordantly over the empty seats, which are now filled with cardboard cutouts, a ploy seemingly designed to appeal to the game’s demographic — the oldest in professional sports — by evoking the promotional displays you used to see in video stores and multiplex cinemas. Some teams, like the Mets, solicited photo submissions from fans for $50, while the Padres, the first national sports team to hold annual military appreciation events, offer the opportunity only to servicemen and -women. “It’s like you’re looking at pizza, but you’re smelling a hamburger,” Los Angeles Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon told the New York Times of the sound of invisible masses from the field. The noise isn’t meant to convince; on the contrary, it allows us to choose not to consider the emptiness of the crowdless stadium. Theatricality is the point. Artificial artifice is more acceptable than none at all.
The noise isn’t meant to convince; on the contrary, it allows us to choose not to consider the emptiness of the crowdless stadium
Baseball has always been a mediated spectacle, occurring at varying degrees from the “truth.” After the doping scandals that cast doubts on the record-setting starpower of the 1990s and 2000s, the presence of everyday humans in the crowd was the last vestige of spontaneity that the MLB had the right to claim; without them, baseball is just another show on TV. As Amanda Hess wrote in the Times about the dearth of live audiences due to the coronavirus, “the television experience was largely designed to replicate live performances,” and as a form of filmed theater, sports have retained this essence while adapting to a changing media environment. In this way, disgraced sultans of swing like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and José Canseco can be seen as antecedents to today’s reality stars, bridging the gulf between legitimate athleticism and professional wrestling with poetic license, fudging the facts to please the crowd. (Canseco is a rare crossover star, featured in Season 5 of VH1’s The Surreal Life.) Bereft of in-person spectators, the game has become more like MLB: The Show: distant, uncanny, enveloped in a simulacrum of white noise. This isn’t too far removed from what we came for, when we could still go.
Fake noise is no newer to baseball than it is to the history of broadcast, both of which grew up together. Jack Foley, the Hollywood sound effects pioneer after whom the trade was named, moved to California from New York to pursue a career as a baseball player. He only made it semi-pro, but his first major contribution to the cinema — the “Nee-Yah!” yell in 1929’s Tarzan the Tiger — was voiced in impersonation of Detroit Tigers manager Hughey Jennings. In 1948, broadcaster Gordon McLendon founded the Liberty Broadcasting System, which aired recreations of baseball games following the action from reports on the Western Union ticker. Rather than broadcasting the actual audio, which would have required paying expensive licensing fees, McLendon and his colleagues Lindsey Nelson and Jerry Doggett, who would be remembered for generation-long tenures voicing the Mets and the Dodgers, respectively, called the games from a telegraphed script. Realistic sound effects compensated for the asynchronicity of the broadcasts, deceiving listeners into thinking that the games were happening live. His embellishments occasionally interfered with the illusion: when New York Giant Bobby Thompson hit a pennant-winning home run against Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca on October 3, 1951, McLendon announced: “Branca is making this historic walk to the mound.” Temporal incongruity is a feature of baseball spectatorship, whether a “FUCK” texted from a friend watching the game on cable arrives before a Cardinals homer appears on the Hulu stream, or inattention arising from innings of inaction causes one to miss a career-defining play. It is called “the thinking man’s game” not only for its emphasis on strategy and analytics, but because the slowness of its pace encourages distraction, absent-minded contemplation.
The seats are now filled with cardboard cutouts, seemingly designed to appeal to the game’s demographic — the oldest in professional sports
In other arenas, too, our ears have attuned themselves to rings that are false.“Bennie and the Jets,” from Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, presents itself as a live performance, but was in fact recorded in the studio: producer Gus Dudgeon sourced crowd noise from an Elton show at the Royal Festival Hall, as well as Jimi Hendrix’s 1970 set at the Isle of Wight, layering the applause on “the wrong beat, because English audiences always clap on the ‘on’ instead of the ‘off’ beat, which drives me crazy.” The sampled hand claps of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 2” have become staples of stadium sound design as much as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” written by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer on Tin Pan Alley in 1908, before either had ever attended a game. The 1970s were the era of the live album, which the decade’s greatest artists churned out and perfected; and though it would require intoxicants, wishful thinking, and an expensive stereo to convince listeners that they were actually Live at Leeds or At Fillmore East, bands like the Grateful Dead understood that live performance was the touchstone of rock and roll, a legacy that lives on in widely shared bootleg recordings even as festival culture has come to an indefinite end.
Laugh tracks, invented by Jack Dadswell of Florida’s WWJB in 1945, were used throughout the Golden Age of Television to “sweeten” and at times cover for the reactions of a live audience. This was hardly invasive to audiences accustomed to the conventions of live performance. Today, the prevalence of canned laughter in sitcoms through the 1990s can be jarring: the standards of prestige television mostly forbid breaks of the fourth wall that would upset their stern realism. Take it away, though, and the result is even more shocking: sans laugh track, Seinfeld approaches Chekhovian levels of ambiguity. As Hess writes, “The crowd lends a democratic sheen to an event, legitimizing the performer’s skill and authenticating the show as real. If the crowd laughs, the joke was funny. If it boos, the call was bad.” In the absence of manufactured consent, the show about nothing is about even less.
Marshall McLuhan considered television a “cool” medium because the amount of data transferred was smaller than “hot” books and films, which is not as true in the age of high definition, but also because TV arrives more processed, easier to swallow. The laugh-tracked sitcom is a relic of network prime time, itself an obsolete mode of consuming entertainment, while many viewers have moved on to content that delivers predetermined consensus in innovative ways: post-show recaps and season reunions, virality, targeted advertising, and algorithmic programming. Who needs an audience to tell the viewer what to think when producers and stars can do it themselves? The thirst for content is, in part, a yearning to participate in a collective experience: to be among others, even if — and especially when — we’re alone.
The inauthenticity of the noise is not as detectable over the airwaves as it must be on the field
So it is with the artificial crowds of the 2020 MLB season. The inauthenticity of the noise is not as detectable over the airwaves as it must be on the field, where, in a typical season, crowds are miked, recorded, and compressed digitally for broadcast. But it’s made conspicuous by the starkness of the silence lurking beneath, which the wider angles of the camera cannot help but conjure. Alone together, baseball is void of the communion that once made its parks an apt symbol of modernity and an inexact metonym for the American idea, but its soundtrack rasps forth a welcome hum, reminiscent of static, undisturbing so long as you don’t think about it too much.
The paper stand-ins for the viewer reflect the absurd fantasy at the heart of our desire for life as it was, which was brought to the surface in pre-season games, aired in relative silence — the disembodied commentary hanging above sounds that were palpably authentic: the crack of the bat, the swing and the miss, the ball in the glove. In spite or because of their basis in fact, these sounds are unsettling, somehow more uncanny than the fake applause. They are sounds of labor, reminders that even when athletes are overpaid — which many in baseball are not — they are still on the job. Applause alleviates the discomfort incurred from the realization that it is enjoyable to watch other men work.
At its core, baseball is a bourgeois parody of capitalism, affording the proletariat a chance to be boss for once, and a cheer is a gift to the working man, a token of appreciation for clocking in on the days when we don’t have to — an acknowledgment we all want but rarely obtain. A “Cheer at the Ballpark” function on the MLB app allows fans to “clap” for or “boo” against the teams of their choice, erupting a flurry of emojis that rise up from either side of the screen, not unlike a livestream, revealing how many others are out there, somewhere, fiddling with their phones. The sound of one hand clapping turns out to be quieter than none at all, but applause permits us to stand in relation to those who labor on our behalf.