You watch the Red Sox on TV and hear the commentators, and it warms you knowing that Dave O’Brien, Jerry Remy, and Dennis Eckersley are ensconced in the broadcast booth at Fenway Park, describing what is unfolding on the great green lawn below. In the tradition of Curt Gowdy, Ned Martin, Ken Coleman, Dick Stockton, Sean McDonough, and Don Orsillo, they are your eyes and ears. They are your boots on the ground at Fenway.
Except during the COVID-19 era, when the Sox broadcasters have been bunkered in Watertown, watching monitors, trying to describe the action unfolding at Fenway or in Fort Myers, Baltimore, and Arlington, Texas.
Red Sox broadcasters have been faking it since July of 2020. They have described the action while they sat in a studio 6 miles from Jersey Street. Out of the dreaded (and necessary) Abundance of Caution, the announcers were not at Fenway when they told you Christian Vázquez just made a great snap throw to first base. It’s been largely the same with most games you’ve watched in most sports over the last year.
But it’s changing. For the first time since September of 2019, O’Brien, Remy, and Eckersley returned to Fenway for the Sox-Tigers series this week.
“It was kind of strange,” Remy said after his initial return to the park Tuesday. “I hadn’t been there in over a year. And it was like a ghost town. Very strange to see just a few fans in the ballpark. That’s what it was like when I was a kid and you could walk in and go down and sit in a box seat. That’s what it was like all those years Yaz played here before 1967.”
“The park was so stiff and quiet,” added Eckersley. “There was nobody really around. It reminded me of when I played in Cleveland in 1975. That’s what the park was like back then.
“But in this case, we were all so glad just to be back. Once the game starts, it’s like you never left. I get fired up no matter what. That’s just how I am.
“And being in the ballpark gives you energy, just like having fans there gives the players energy. It gets me going. It’ll be better when there’s 35,000 fans, but this is still better than being in the studio looking at the wall.”
“It’s surreal being back at the ballpark,” said O’Brien. “Now we’re not just watching TV. We’re seeing a live pitch. It’s right there beneath you instead of on a monitor. It’s been wonderful.”
O’Brien has the toughest job when the broadcasters work from Watertown. Watching on TV, it’s not easy telling viewers whether the ball off the bat is bound for the Monster Seats … or the left fielder.
“Home runs are the toughest thing, particularly at Fenway,” said O’Brien. “The outfielder usually tells you, but when you are in the studio, you don’t usually see him right away. And then we’ve got the Pesky Pole, and you need to be at the park to see if balls hit down there are going to stay fair. I have no fighting chance if I am doing it on the monitor. At least when I’m at the park, I have a 50-50 chance.
“When we did our first game here Tuesday, I knew every homer was gone as soon as it left the bat. It was a shock, like, ‘Wow, I can identify that without having to wait.’ ”
Fans have hardly noticed the difference — a detail that has gotten the attention of broadcast outlets mindful of cutting costs. ESPN has taken notice. Naturally, NESN is no different. If fans can’t tell whether the broadcasters are on-site, why spend bundles to send them on the road all season?
O’Brien knows many of his viewers can’t tell the difference.
“I have smart friends who are baseball fans,” he said, “and after the Sox played that series in Texas, they’d ask me, ‘What was Texas like? Were people wearing masks?’ So many of the fans think we are actually there.”
“I totally get that,” said Remy. “I really couldn’t tell when I was watching games. I think most of the fans know what we have been doing and you really can’t tell unless someone says something to tip it off.”
“That happened earlier this year,” said O’Brien “The Sox were, I think, in Minnesota and we were doing the game and somebody said, ‘Jim Rice dropped by with doughnuts for everybody today,’ and folks who thought we were in Minnesota must have been thinking, ‘Wait — Rice went all the way to Minnesota to bring them doughnuts? What a great guy.’ ”
O’Brien, Remy, and Eckersley were back at Fenway for Thursday’s matinee finale with the Tigers, but they will return to the Watertown studio when the Sox play in Baltimore this weekend. Returning to the road probably isn’t going to happen this year.
“I wouldn’t mind,” said Remy. “Doing it this way is beautiful. I don’t know if we’ll ever travel again and I don’t see any need for it. We’ve got everything we need. I’m loving this. Sleeping in my own bed. Doing it this way is beautiful. I hate the road. I’m done with the road.”
“This has worked out great for Jerry, who wasn’t going to go out anyway,” said Eckersley. “I have no problem if we don’t go back.
“Not traveling would have saved me a lot of headaches a few years ago. [David Price verbally accosted Eckersley on a team charter in 2017.] I wasn’t even supposed to be on that [expletive] trip in the first place.
“Now that we’ve been able to do it the way we’ve been doing it, you can argue that we’re not missing anything anyway. For the most part, the fans don’t know the difference whether we’re there or not.”
“We’ve proven we can do it remotely,” said O’Brien. “But I want to be there. We can serve the fans better if we are there. It’s been hard to do the same way, and that’s why it’s such a joy to be back.
“I still miss the little things like not being able to go in the clubhouse and talk to players and the manager and all that stuff. But just driving back to Fenway and seeing how beautiful it is and how green the grass is, I missed all that. It’s been great to be back at Fenway this week.”