The bellowing foghorn followed by the season’s celebratory song — a year ago it was “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and the year before that “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads — booming from the sound system of T-Mobile Park following a Mariners home run was absent.
Even the simulated crowd noise being pumped through the speakers didn’t seem to register much of an increase when Kyle Lewis’ first solo home run smacked off the digital scoreboard high above the bullpens in left-center. Though teammates yelling from the dugout could be heard.
And his second homer, a stunning opposite-field solo blast to right field that showcased his unique power and oozing potential, barely changed the decibels in the fake crowd noise.
Even on the coldest weekday nights in early April when school is in session and the A’s are in town, or the fall-chilled September evenings when games in Seattle have no playoff implications for the home team and the Tigers are visiting, the minimal crowds at T-Mobile would have come alive for two homers in two at-bats from one of the Mariners’ talented young prospects.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the shotgun-sounding cracks of the baseball meeting the barrel of Lewis’ maple bat were perhaps the most memorable noise made in an empty stadium for a game between teammates.
On a near-perfect July afternoon that featured cloudless skies and temperatures in the 70s, the Mariners’ first intrasquad game of “summer camp” 2020 between teams labeled “Pilots” and “Steelheads” went its scheduled six innings and ended in a 3-3 tie. So much to unpack in one sentence. Five months ago, who could have imagined such a sentence and all it was describing being written, including the weather?
But since the novel coronavirus shut down baseball and all professional sports, altered everyday life and doesn’t seem to be stopping in its disruptive ways, this is “the new normal” for baseball per Mariners manager Scott Servais and just about anyone else seemingly intent on turning it into a cliché.
Still, the intrasquad game offered something more than batting practice, fielding drills, situational work and even a live batting-practice session. Even the Mariners’ director of player development was serving as the only umpire, making calls, including balls and strikes from behind home plate, there was the feeling of competition and the intensity that comes with it. Yes, it was teammates vs. teammates. But sometimes getting beat by your friend feels worse than losing to your enemy.
“It was exciting to put the pants back on and get out there and lace them up,” Lewis said. “Then they kind of had the music playing and they were trying to do the crowd-noise thing, and that was kind of cool. It was exciting for me. The energy really was there, I felt like guys were excited to be back playing.”
Pitchers Justin Dunn, who started for the Steelheads team and the first victim of Lewis’ power, and Justus Sheffield, who started for the Pilots and benefited from Lewis’ power, could feel that energy.
“Sheff and I looked at each other before it all started, and I said, ‘Are you as juiced up as I am for this?’ ” Dunn said. “It was just good to get out there.”
Dunn’s pregame excitement was tempered a little in the first inning. J.P. Crawford, the second batter he faced, was able to stay with a 3-2 fastball and drive it over the wall in right-center. Lewis, the next batter, destroyed a 2-1 fastball up in the zone for the first of his two dingers.
“That’s what happens you fall behind to good hitters,” Dunn said.
Said Lewis: “I know he has a good slider, but I was just trying to look for a fastball over the plate. I was able to react to a fastball in.”
The at-bat against Lewis was instructive to Dunn. The two friends often discuss pitch-sequencing philosophies from their different perspectives.
“We’ve had a lot of days to talk about it,” Dunn said. “I think I’ve asked about that particular sequence a thousand times. I’m going tip that off to he knew what was coming.”
Lewis’ second plate appearance came against lefty Nick Margevicius. He fell behind 1-2 on a pair of called strikes on fastballs. With a 1-2 count, Margevicius tried to backdoor a breaking ball on the outside corner. But the pitch hung a little, allowing Lewis to stay on it and send a line drive over the wall in right field. That power to the opposite field is what could make him a special player, capable of hitting 30-plus homers in a normal season of 500 plate appearances.
Lewis gave a display of that power potential in his September call-up in 2019, hitting three homers in his first three games and six homers in his first 10.
He hit a mammoth blast off a 95 mph fastball from Austin Adams during live batting practice two days ago.
“I’ve seen Kyle be Kyle,” Dunn said. “That’s who he is. I call him ‘Showtime’ or ‘Superstar.’ He’s that type of player with that type of potential. Every time he’s on the field, it’s going to be something special to watch. He looks a lot more balanced, a lot more in control, a lot more confident coming in. I think he’s going to be really scary this year.”
The Mariners’ bullpen could also be a little scary this year, and maybe not in a good way. Right-hander Yohan Ramirez, Seattle’s pick in the Rule 5 draft, struggled in his one inning of work. Despite his fastballs touching 97 mph, he loaded the bases on two walks and a hit and then gave up a two-run single to Evan White and an RBI single to Dee Gordon that allowed the Pilots to tie the game at 3-3.
The intrasquad scrimmage offered small glimpses of how the 60-game regular season might look and feel from player and fan perspectives. The empty stands and the steady crowd noise provide an odd backdrop. The Mariners’ game-day staff didn’t use any videos of its typical packages on the JumboTron, though those are expected to be common in the regular season along with fans participating via zoom and cardboard cutouts in the stands. They did have players’ walk-up music for most hitters.
“I told Kevin Martinez (Mariners vice president of marketing) and the crew upstairs, ‘Be as creative as you want, now’s the time to kind of turn it into — oftentimes if you go to minor-league games, you’ll hear like crazy sound effects and things like that — have fun with it, keep it light and keep it rolling.”
Lewis noticed the “crowd noise” as he was standing in the field and in the dugout.
“We could hear it,” he said “It’s kind of interesting. They’re trying to get variations of it, I thought. And I guess they’re still working on that, but you can definitely hear it.”
But that generated crowd noise didn’t seem to go up to expected levels after either of his homers, and the typical celebration was missing.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s the first day.”
Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that “Burning Down the House” was performed by Talking Heads, not Crowded House as originally reported.