In Major League Baseball’s packet of rules and regulations for restarting the season even as the COVID-19 virus refuses to yield the field, the effects the pandemic will have on the way media members do their jobs may as well be footnotes.
That’s understandable given the wholesale changes required to the schedule and the implementation of complex protocols just to get a 60-game season started.
Still, the changes with the media are significant, and will have a noticeable effect on what viewers and listeners receive for a game broadcast.
A few notable rules: Only 35 media members per game will be allowed in the ballpark, including photographers but not including broadcasters; interviews with players and other personnel will be done via video conferencing; reporters must leave the ballpark within an hour of the end of postgame interviews.
The rules for the television and radio teams are unlike anything that has been done before. Home teams will provide a “neutral” feed for each game, with instructions to show players on both teams equally; television commentators will not be in the ballpark for road games, instead calling them off a feed, but radio announcers will be permitted in road booths.
The Red Sox broadcast teams for WEEI radio and NESN are in the process of figuring out their approaches, but some groundwork has already been laid for the targeted July 23 or 24 restart.
In somewhat of a surprise, NESN currently intends to broadcast all games, including those at Fenway Park, from its studios in Watertown.
“I believe that we are going to do all games from NESN at this point, subject to change,” said Dave O’Brien, the Red Sox play-by-play voice on the network since 2016. “What we’re being told is that NESN will give us everything that we need, tons of monitors, different looks. There might actually be more access if players are going to be miked.
“The feeds should be excellent. But it sure will be different.”
O’Brien said the expectation is that analysts Jerry Remy and Dennis Eckersley will both join him — at a safe social distance, of course — in a three-man “booth” for all 60 games.
“It’s a great thing that we can have our favorite booth for 60 games,‘' said O’Brien. “If it were 162, probably not. But 60 games, we can make that work.”
It’s uncertain right now whether NESN will broadcast any “spring training” games.
On the radio side, Joe Castiglione, a radio voice of the Red Sox since 1983, said there have not been any meetings yet about the final plan. But he has been told that the plan right now is that the radio crew won’t travel for road games.
“As far as I know, the first plan was to do all games at Fenway, with us doing the away games off the monitor at Fenway,‘' said Castiglione. “But nothing is cut in stone.”
One area in which O’Brien and Castiglione disagree is the effect a ballpark without any fans might have on a broadcast.
“It’s hard to quantify how huge a deal not having fans will be,‘' said O’Brien, who worked on the radio side with Castiglione from 2007-15 before moving to NESN. “The sound of the crowd is the bed we lie on. It’s the soundtrack.
“As a broadcaster, you rely on the crowd. Xander [Bogaerts] rips a three-run homer in the eighth inning to take the lead, nothing can touch that sound from 37,000 fans’ reaction. We can let Fenway fill the moment. For these games, we’ll have to let something else compensate for that.”
Castiglione, who said he has talked to some production people who believe ambient crowd noise “would not sound phony,‘' said the absence of a crowd would not change how he calls the game.
“The crowd right after an exciting play is important,‘' he said. “But as far as calling the actual play, I don’t think it will affect that. You’re concentrating on the action and describing where the ball is. So I don’t think no fans in the park will be a big factor.”
While Castiglione is used to the crowds of 35,000-plus at Fenway, and team president Sam Kennedy has said there’s a possibility of having fans in the ballpark later in the season, the broadcaster does have some experience calling games in front of rows of empty seats.
“I did games at my first job [for the Indians] at Cleveland Stadium where there were 3,000 people at an 80,000-seat stadium,‘' said Castiglione. “My first year, ’79, the Oakland A’s, in those days when [A’s owner] Charlie Finley wouldn’t pay his bills, they had about 800-1,000 people in the stands.
“Cleveland Indians against the last-place Oakland A’s. Nobody there. We’ve been there before.”
O’Brien and Castiglione are on the same page with this: They’re glad the game is coming back, even in its unfamiliar and abbreviated form.
“Getting back to the game, despite all of the rancor of the negotiations, I hope that’s a good thing for everybody,‘' said O’Brien. “I believe it will be.”
Said Castiglione: “I hope the virus cooperates and we go as now scheduled. But 60 games is better than none.”