ST. PETERSBURG — Go ahead and get your jokes out of the way first, about the Rays and crowds and noise at Tropicana Field. Chances are, they’ve been heard before.
Given the new pandemic-forced reality of playing in a truly empty Trop with no fans at all, at least to start the season, the Rays on Thursday got their first sample of what can be done to compensate.
And the fake crowd noise actually sounded pretty good.
The base track, provided to teams by Major League Baseball, provides a low hum or buzz of ambient crowd noise that can be — and was — turned up when play dictates.
An assortment of 75 sound effects, prompts and reactions can be mixed in, as teams can customize the presentation. Plus, there was music — rather than talking and sponsor pitches — during the inning breaks, as they played 6½ innings against themselves.
“I liked it,” said outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-serving Ray. “I did. It’s a lot better than just silence throughout a ballpark. That’s not what we’re accustomed to.”
Sitting in the bullpen before the first pitch, reliever Andrew Kittredge said the noise “made it feel more like we’re getting ready to play real meaningful games.” Infielder/outfielder Mike Brosseau said the soundtrack pumped up players’ energy level and “brought a whole new element to the workouts we haven’t really had.”
Even manager Kevin Cash, who said Wednesday, “it’s not that big of a deal,” was pleased with what the Rays’ game-day crew presented on the first try.
“I actually thought they did a really, really good (Thursday) with practicing,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s what’s going to be the new norm, but if it is, it seemed very, very reasonable from the field level.
“It sounded like kind of that perfect decibel level, volume level, to where it wasn’t a nuisance and replicated having fans.”
The fake noise actually has legitimate roots, created from audio recorded at actual games and then edited to be used in the MLB The Show video game. Now — in a total warp of virtual and reality — it is repackaged to be played at real stadiums. Though being done mainly for aesthetic purposes, there are some strategic benefits — drowning out dugout and on-field discussions and even the sound of a fielder or catcher shifting positions before a pitch.
Teams are supposed to keep the type of sounds and volume in check with that they normally do with fans in the stadiums, so that may be a line that’s hard to define and teams could try to manipulate it to their advantage.
Kiermaier said it was so loud in centerfield just before the first pitch he couldn’t hear Hunter Renfroe in right. But once they started play, “everything quieted down and you kind of had that crowd white noise and we liked it.”
Some of the additional effects are a bit odd, such as playing the cue for the “Charge!” cheer with no response. There’s an adjustment to hearing music between innings, as it softens the edges of the break, though not necessarily a bad one. Those songs lead into the batter being announced and then his usual walk-up music.
Given that it was the first experiment in phantom fandom for game presentation and production manager Michael Weinman, it seemed to go pretty well. Since it was an instrasquad game, the situations to boost the home team were a bit blurred. But, for example, the sounds, and thus the drama, built when Kiermaier went to a 3-2 count and when a team had the bases loaded.
The most obvious issue was the timing, with the increase in crowd noise lagging behind the play or cut off too soon, which would seem adjustable.
“There’s ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ to the crowd in a normal crowd and there’s claps and there’s people laughing at times,” Kiermaier said. “So it will be very interesting to see how they control that up there to implement certain sounds throughout certain points throughout the game.
“I guess you could say I’m curious to see how that is going to progress as time goes on. When guys would hit, square balls up, double or homer, you could tell the sound was a little bit delayed. Which, rightfully so, it can’t be easy to control that or know which buttons are what, however the heck they control that up there. Overall, the guys were talking about it, we were very pleased with it. … It’s fun.”
And, several Rays said, nothing to joke about.
“We’re trying to make the game as realistic and as normal as possible,” Brosseau said. “It’s not going to be a normal season, but if we can add that to get some familiarity with how we used to play, then I’m all for it.”