With runners on first and second base in the bottom of the third inning on Friday, Dave Sims sat in a familiar spot. The Mariners’ broadcaster for ROOT Sports was perched in a booth directly above home plate at T-Mobile Park. He wore a headset over his blue Kangol hat, and he clutched a white ruler in his left hand as he spoke. The ruler, he said, doesn’t serve any practical purpose. He just likes to have something to hold. “It’s like I’m my own conductor,” he joked, waving it like a baton between innings.
The 67-year-old Sims was meticulously prepared for opening day. His blue hat coordinated — not coincidentally — with a blue shirt, blue tie and blue backdrop. With each pitch, he updated a thick scorebook with a bold black pen. Next to it, he kept a notebook filled with previously prepared statistics and observations — many highlighted to emphasize particular importance. His five highlighters — each a different color — were lined up neatly, facing the same way.
As Mariners starter Marco Gonzales came set, Sims looked up and saw … nothing. No players on the field. No fans in the bleachers. No noise, apart from the groan of a train lumbering past beyond the wall.
“I just did the same thing you did, Mike,” Sims said with a chuckle to his color commentator, Mike Blowers, as a set of sprinklers watered the outfield grass. “I instinctively looked out at the field.”
Of course, there was nothing to see in Seattle, because the game was happening in Houston. The orchestra was playing more than 2,000 miles away.
Such is the new normal for Major League Baseball, which opened a 60-game season last week in empty ballparks across the country. And, because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, regional networks such as ROOT Sports are forced to broadcast road games remotely — even if that means overlooking a stadium where the game isn’t actually being played.
“It’s just different,” Sims said in an interview on Friday morning. “But I’m not mourning anything. My bottom line is we got the freaking game back. But at our ballpark, during the seventh-inning stretch, they always play ‘Louie Louie’ and there’s a bunch of season-ticket holders down below and we wave at each other, and we’ve been doing that for years. Seeing all the guys that you work with, maybe not all the guys are there — especially tonight — and (you miss) all the conversations you have with the security people as you walk in.
“I’m going to miss being in the clubhouse every day and just checking in on guys and getting answers to questions. There’s no way that’s going to be able to be duplicated. I’ll miss hearing the vendors. There’s certain vendors you recognize by sound or sight. It’s just going to be different. But we’ll adapt to it.”
On the first day of the regular season, the adaptations were obvious. Sims was surrounded by a small fleet of television monitors, each providing different images of Minute Maid Park. He occasionally squirted sanitizer on his hands as he spoke. The monitor on his far left displayed upcoming ad reads in big, legible capital letters. On the other side, a monitor showed a split-screen of himself and Blowers — who, instead of sitting next to Sims, was situated in the road TV booth down the hall. A plexiglass partition was also installed to separate Sims and a stage manager on the opposite end of the booth.
Besides Sims’ play-by-play, it was eerily quiet at T-Mobile Park. The game played silently on the video board beyond center field. Each passing train or airplane echoed in the park. It was so silent, in fact, that Sims could hear Mariners radio announcer Rick Rizzs calling the game in the booth next door.
But the scene was very different in the parking lot across the street, where directors and producers and technicians were socially distanced in a TV truck and a pair of temporary trailers, working to produce a broadcast that looked the same even in unprecedented circumstances.
“The light doesn’t go on when first pitch happens. All of this legwork happens,” said Jon Bradford, ROOT Sports’ executive producer. “We’re kind of like ducks, where everything is smooth on top but underneath we’re kicking our feet like there’s no tomorrow. These guys have been kicking their feet for many, many days — and the Seattle Mariners, and Major League Baseball.
“We just hope that floating duck looks exactly like that for 66 days.”
For each of the Mariners’ 30 road games, ROOT Sports will receive a “world feed” — a neutral view of the action to be used by both networks, provided by the home team. The road broadcast will control exactly one camera that can be utilized to provide Mariners-centric shots. They can also augment the world feed to make it appear more like a regional broadcast, adding graphics and statistics and commentary with local personalities in ROOT’s fully staffed Bellevue studios.
On Friday, ROOT received 32 different audio feeds from Minute Maid Park — “everything from the left-side bat crack to the right-side bat crack,” according to producer Curtis Wilson.
But the goal, Bradford said, “is when people turn it on they go, ‘That looks like the Seattle Mariners are playing the Houston Astros.’ ”
Despite extra work below the surface, it should look like the same old duck.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mariners TV director Jim Armintrout. “It’s hard to compare this to anything else in TV, except for maybe when we went from standard definition to high definition and everything changed kind of overnight. You throw a switch and now it’s a whole new thing.”
It’s new for ROOT’s directors and producers and technicians, who no longer have complete authority over the camera shots streamed across the screen. As Bradford said, “If Scott Servais isn’t very happy or the umpire is walking over, we’re not going to see that unless Houston shoots it for us. If they miss it, we miss it. That kind of stuff … you can’t prepare for that until you see it.”
The same goes for Sims and Blowers as well. In a typical broadcast, a producer might alert them before a specific shot is shown, allowing them to work it into the conversation. The new reality, by comparison, is much more reactive. That fact was apparent during ROOT Sports’ rehearsal last Tuesday, when Sims and Blowers called several innings of a live scrimmage between the Atlanta Braves and the Miami Marlins.
And, without warning, a cardboard cutout of Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman’s face flashed across the screen.
“We would never put that shot up if we control the cameras without letting them know that it’s coming,” Wilson explained. “It’s a great shot. There’s nothing wrong with the shot. But to all of a sudden have that pop up on the screen, now Dave and Mike have to react to that.”
Added Bradford: “The one thing we talk about constantly is, ‘Context. Context. Context.’ Everything about what we’re going to do … there is no context, because we don’t get to know what’s coming. If you don’t know what’s coming, it’s hard to process context and then spit it back out, and we have a fraction of a second to do that. That will be different for us.”
But, in this new reality, different is doable — and safety is paramount.
“We have to keep people safe,” said Bradford, who emphasized the social-distancing protocols both inside T-Mobile Park and in the production area across the street. “MLS, NBA, NHL, WNBA, they’re all in bubbles in Orlando (or in Canada). There’s 14 (MLB) games going on today. There’s 14 bubbles. This is an undertaking like we’ve never seen. But it’s going to be cool. It’s been a long journey to start this sprint.”
And Sims certainly prefers the sprint over a seemingly endless coronavirus quarantine. For 44 consecutive days this spring, he and his wife, Abby, didn’t leave their home in New York City. He joked that “my big event for a lot of those days was to go down to the lobby, say hello to the doorman and maybe grab a package and get mail.”
So sure, he’ll take the strange solitude of T-Mobile Park. He’ll take 66 days of socially distanced baseball. On Friday, Sims sat a few thousand miles from the orchestra. But, even then, he still loved the music.
“I’m happy as all heck to get outside,” he said. “It’s baseball. The game could be (broadcast) from Mars and it’d still be, ‘Here’s the 3-2 to Vogey!’ It’s back, and hopefully it’ll be sustainable.”