Heeere’s the pitch … and the crowd goes (choose one):
Such are the decisions that face an anonymous-for-now Red Sox employee entrusted with speaking, cheering, and grumbling for the 37,000-plus fans who will not pack Fenway Park for each game this season.
The artificial crowd-noise choices, made on an iPad with some 75-plus sound samples, will be piped in over the ballpark’s public address system, to be heard by the few people on the premises and picked up by the microphones scattered across the ballpark for radio and TV feeds.
Rather than have the Red Sox and the 29 other teams play their abbreviated 60-game schedules to the sounds of mostly silence in cavernous, echo-chamber ballparks, Major League Baseball decreed that teams should mimic, as best they can, the aural environment from pre-pandemic times.
A ubiquitous “crowd murmur” will always be set to “on” and serve as the baseline audio feed.
That “murmur” and all the other audio samples are cribbed from MLB’s The Show video game by Sony. Teams may layer on some custom sounds if they so wish, but for the last week, teams have been taking a crash course to get the hang of the sound machine.
And while patrons at Fenway and every other ballpark often make cheering mistakes when it comes to distinguishing between a deep fly out and a home run, the Red Sox want to react correctly at the crack of the bat, the third-strike call of an umpire, or an outfielder tracking down a ball.
“They’ve got to be dialed in, just dialed in,” said Sarah McKenna, Red Sox senior vice president for fan services and entertainment. “If the ball is long and it looks like it’s going to go out but then it gets caught or it goes long and then it goes out, those are two very different emotions. You have the ability to watch it as you go. Really, the person that is doing it can’t miss a pitch for it to work properly.”
For now, the employee handling the iPad wants to go unnamed, mainly to avoid boos, virtual or not, in case a kerfuffle blooms from a gaffe.
Speaking of boos, McKenna said, “There’s no real booing. But if someone hits a ‘home run’ and it’s caught, it’s ‘aaaaaw-oh.’ It’s not a boo. I call them ‘disappointing emotions.’ It’s sort of like that collective gasp of breath.”
So far, so good, said McKenna, grateful for the intrasquad and two exhibition games the Red Sox played leading up to Friday’s opener.
“We’re lucky it’s so user-friendly, but it’s a lot to accomplish and get used to,” she said.
MLB also is rolling out a “Cheer at the Ballpark” app that allows fans to chime in with their emotions from their couches, with that feedback forwarded to the crowd noisemaker to incorporate.
As to how loud to crank the “murmur” and how creative the crowd-noisemaker gets with the emotional options, MLB trusts teams will get it right.
“What we’re saying is the club needs to match what they would have expected to hear had there been fans in the ballpark,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s executive vice president for strategy, technology and innovation, “and to the extent that there’s issues or disputes around that, that will be managed by our baseball operations department.
“ ‘Cheer at the Ballpark’ is really just a guideline. Even if it came back everyone was booing, they don’t necessarily have to ratchet the booing up to unprecedented levels just because that’s what it says in the app. It’s more of a guideline so the operator has another frame of reference for what to do.
“There’ll be a little bit of testing and learning out of the gate, but we’ve intentionally tried to get the scoreboard operators to be conservative at the start, and really focus on getting the murmur right in the background and then we’ll start to elaborate on the reactions as we go throughout the season.”
Artificial noise will not be the only virtual addition to this strangest of seasons.
The Red Sox are expected to have an actual person throw out the ceremonial first pitch Friday, but after that, it will likely be done in virtual fashion.
The Red Sox also will employ virtual advertising on broadcasts, with logos hovering on the pitcher’s mound, behind home plate, and in foul territory.
The swaths of empty seats will not be wasted, either. The Red Sox opted not to stretch tarps emblazoned with sponsors’ names across seating sections, but home viewers will see virtual advertising appear in the stands.