Good, Bad and Strange Ideas for MLB to Experiment with During Fanless Games

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2020

Good, Bad and Strange Ideas for MLB to Experiment with During Fanless Games

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Assuming we have a 2020 MLB season, it will be different in a host of ways. The most striking is likely to be the absence of fans at games and the sight of players plying their trade in largely empty stadiums.

    While the biggest hurdles to playing ball are about safety and money, the league will also need to figure out how to make games exciting and entertaining without the energy of tens of thousands of live spectators.

    Here are seven ideas that have either been floated elsewhere, tried in some form or that we simply came up with, broken down into three categories:

    Good: These are things we hope will be implemented and that would undoubtedly improve the fanless game experience.

    Bad: These are the opposite of what we just said.

    Strange: These are probably too odd or outside-the-box to work but are at least fun to consider.

Good: Let the Fans Sing the Anthem

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    Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    Instead of inviting a singer or musician to go through various COVID-screening protocols and perform "The  Star-Spangled Banner" live (or, worse, playing some prerecorded version over the PA system), why not invite fans to record their own renditions of the anthem and submit them?

    The best and/or most interesting ones could be played before games on the scoreboard and simultaneously aired on the game broadcast.

    Teams could do the same for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "God Bless America," and could offer incentives for the winners such as autographed merchandise, tickets to games once parks reopen to the public or an online chat with a favorite player.

Strange (and Probably Bad): Fake People in the Stands

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    Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

    The Korean Baseball Organization started its 2020 season May 5 and has been hanging banners featuring pictures of mask-wearing fans on the empty seats.

    While it's not too distracting from a televised distance, the up-close effect is a bit unnerving.

    Speaking of which: England's Premier League is reportedly considering restarting soccer matches this summer with the addition of computer-generated fans.

    CGI technology has undeniably improved over the years, but even the best special-effects wizards would be hard-pressed to make a stadium full of pretend people look anything but creepy during a three-plus-hour game.

    It's one thing to have a roaring crowd in the distance, but what about those dull moments when people are just sort of sitting there, eating their nachos, sipping their overpriced beers and slathering sunscreen on their kids? 

    We want real people doing that stuff, or no one at all.

Good: Encourage, Facilitate In-Game Fan Interaction

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    While virtual people "at" the game is a no-go, real people interacting with the action and one other virtually is a great idea.

    This already happens to some degree, but MLB should do everything it can to facilitate in-game fan participation. 

    One of the reasons people go to games is to encourage and (hopefully good-naturedly) heckle the players. How about a running scroll on the bottom of every game with the most creative, funny and insightful fan comments and trash talk posted in real time?

    The league should also trot out a steady stream of in-game polls about strategic decisions, predictions of what's going to happen in an at-bat, inning or game and opinions about anything else under the sun. What do you think about Player X's new facial hair? Should they pull Pitcher Y or does he have gas left?

    Additionally, fans should be offered as many tools as possible to interact with one another while sharing game experiences virtually. Nothing can replace sitting next to your buddy at the yard, but the communal nature of fandom cannot be ignored.   

Strange: Let Fans Vote on Lineup Decisions

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    This is taking fan interaction to the extreme, and no one has realistically proposed it, but it's an intriguing notion.

    What if fans could vote on strategic decisions and have their choice implemented? This would obviously only work in select cases, but let's say there's an instance when it's basically a toss-up to start Player A or Player B on a given day, or whether to bat Player C in the 2-spot and Player D third or vice versa? 

    Managers could identify a few of these 50-50 calls ahead of time and put them to the fans to decide. At last, the social media opinion-mongers and talk-radio armchair coaches would have their say.

    Obviously, this probably won't happen. It's tough to imagine managers will agree to cast aside the advice of coaching staffs and front offices, not to mention their own opinions and experiences, in the name of letting the spectators make the call (even if the crowd is sometimes correct).

    But don't pretend this wouldn't drum up plenty of interest and response.

Good: Mic Everyone Up

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    Vera Nieuwenhuis/Associated Press

    During spring training, New York Mets first baseman Peter Alonso wore a mic on the field, and the results were pretty good. Chicago Cubs stars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant were also mic'd up during a March exhibition contest and produced an equally amusing outcome. 

    In 2018, Mike Trout wore a mic on the field during the All-Star Game.

    MLB should continue down this road in fanless games, and ratchet it up. Players, coaches—heck, even trainers and grounds crew—mic 'em all up!

    Obviously discretion is required. Especially in a post-Houston Astros sign-stealing world, teams will be cautious about allowing too much in-game strategizing to be recorded and broadcast. And then there's concern over live mics catching naughty words that might raise the hackles of the FCC—though that's where a several-second delay would come in.

    Baseball is ultimately entertainment. And fans and viewers expect a higher level of access in today's social media culture, especially when going to the ballpark isn't an option.

Bad: Forget the Players' Needs

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    GAIL BURTON/Associated Press

    This is the one thing MLB cannot afford to do: simply play the games without fans and leave it at that.

    Whatever measures the league takes, it can't merely close off stadiums to spectators and shout "play ball!" And it can't rely solely on goodies and extras for the fans at home.

    The players need something too. There's no reason not to pipe in walk-up music, between-innings music and even some sound effects during the game.

    Yes, the "Charge" organ fanfare will sound a little eery echoing on empty seats, but oppressive silence will sound even worse.

Good: More Variety and Star Power in the Booth

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Many fans are surely looking forward to hearing their favorite local and national broadcasters get back behind the mic and dispense the descriptions and accounts of actual baseball games.

    But MLB should open the booth (with proper health measures taken, of course) to a broader array of voices.

    And we're not simply talking about a quick two-inning cameo, either. Invite retired greats from every club to offer anecdotes, play-by-play and commentary for the whole game and bring in baseball-loving celebrities to offer their perspective.

    Get Chris Rock in the New York Mets booth, Bill Murray calling the action for the Chicago Cubs and Will Ferrell doing Los Angeles Dodgers games in Vin Scully's old seat. Or how about Kate Upton doing color commentary with husband and Houston Astros right-hander Justin Verlander on the hill?

    And let them conduct in-game and postgame interviews, too. An A-list celeb or Hall of Famer might actually get players and coaches to say something interesting.

    This isn't a new idea, but it could be expanded and reimagined to add levity and variety and, above all, take attention from the empty stands.