This day was supposed to happen March 26 in front of a full crowd at T-Mobile Park. Instead, it will take place July 31 in front of thousands of cardboard cutouts.
The home opener of the baseball season has always been a de facto civic holiday in Seattle — the one assured sellout, the pageantry of a new season, nouveau fans and posers mingling with hard-core seamheads amid the backdrop of bunting and hope.
There will be no mingling Friday night when the Mariners finally take the field to open their 2020 home season against the Oakland A’s, a mere 127 days behind schedule.
In fact, there will be no fans, standard operating procedure in this pandemic-ravaged, socially distant season.
But that doesn’t mean the venerable ballpark will be bereft of noise, sights and rituals — including the usual elaborate ceremony before the game.
And it doesn’t mean the Mariners’ personnel in charge of game-day production weren’t scurrying around this week, attending to the usual array of last-minute details.
It’s just that this year, the preparation involved fake people, fake noise and creative attempts to stage a game that will be memorable in its own way.
“The goal is to bring our traditions to our fans and to connect fans to our game in a way that restores some normalcy during this extraordinary time,” said Kevin Martinez, the Mariners’ senior vice president of marketing and communications.
“The reason we’re going to all the effort to put together what is essentially a virtual pregame show is to keep those traditions alive that our fans have looked forward to. We’re delivering these traditions in a different way, but hopefully in an as-meaningful way.”
The unique challenge for this year’s home opener, and the 29 T-Mobile Park games to follow (provided the season is played to its conclusion, far from a guarantee) is trying to serve two masters.
For starters, the Mariners want to replicate as much of a typical game-day atmosphere as possible for the benefit of the one group that will be there performing live and in person every day: The players.
That was the request of manager Scott Servais, who knows his players have seen one time-honored routine after another simply evaporate as part of COVID-19 protocol. So if a player gets to hear his walk-up music reverberating through empty stands and that helps stave off further disorientation, well, that’s what Servais wants.
“I had a conversation with Kevin Martinez and Mandy Lincoln (director of marketing), and I told them I wanted to kind of go over the top with the walk-up songs and add any other things to be like a normal game; but even go above that if you can.
“I’m looking forward to it. Just during our intrasquad games, I thought they did a great job. Quite frankly, I think it’s way better than we’ve seen on the road so far, just tying in scoreboard and music and everything else to make it feel as real as possible.”
So Mariners public-address announcer Tom Hutyler will be on hand to introduce the players with exuberance, just as he has done for the past 33 years. Even if the live audience for his dulcet tones will be reduced to the two teams, the training staff, the grounds crew and a smattering of team officials and media.
“I assumed I wasn’t going to be doing anything, if and when we started,” Hutyler said. “I thought, ‘Why would I need to be there if there’s no fans?’ But they felt it was important to replicate the game experience as closely as they could for radio listeners and television viewers.
“It makes sense. It’s better than silence in the background or hearing a couple players clapping from the dugout and possible expletives. I was pleasantly surprised to get to be in the ballpark and see games, at least, and be part of this weirdly historic season.”
T-Mobile will still have a national anthem each day; just not in person. The hydro races will still run on the giant Mariners Vision screen, and so will the Hat Trick game. “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” will play during the seventh-inning stretch, and so, immediately after, will “Louie Louie.”
Same as it ever was. Even if it really isn’t.
“We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible,” said Ben Mertens, the Mariners’ senior director of productions.
“All those staples, from home-run music to Mariners win songs, those things that make a Mariners game a Mariners game, they’ll be part of what we do. Not only for those few folks in the ballpark, but also those who are listening on the radio or hearing it on the TV broadcast. We want it to feel like a normal game for them.”
And that brings us to the second master being served, alluded to by Hutyler: Because fans have no choice but to experience the game via radio or television, the ballpark presentation will also be geared toward their sensory enjoyment, in absentia.
That means that the “Seat Fleet” — cardboard cutouts of fans produced from photos they sent in — will be placed in seats, ringing the main level seating bowl of the stadium and eventually beyond. More than 8,000 fans have coughed up the 30 bucks for a cutout, with a portion of proceeds going to benefit All In WA for COVID-19 relief. That means the “attendance” will approximate a normal crowd in the early Kingdome years.
I imagine the cutouts will play well on TV, while also giving a level of reassuring visual stimulus to players. I was there this week when Mariners officials were setting up the cutouts. It’s a pretty eclectic group, including a healthy representation of dogs and cats — and one horse.
“The biggest thing is just a fan-engagement opportunity,” Lincoln said. “Let the fans feel part of it while they’re safe at home.”
The final element that will give these largely vacant home games a distinctive flair is the piped-in crowd noise. MLB made a conscious decision to eschew silence, mandating that teams use a digital touch pad that has been loaded with sound effects — some 75 crowd reactions.
According to Mertens, the Mariners will have a person in the booth dedicated to operating the touch pad, which uses recorded crowd noise from Sony’s “MLB The Show” video game. That person will have to be lightning quick in ascertaining the appropriate sound for the unfolding action.
The sound effects range “from the basic crowd murmur, what you would hear if it’s top of the first inning and people are getting settled in their seats, to if Kyle Lewis crushes another baseball that ramps up the crowd anticipation, to what it sounds like when the ball does leave the ballpark and you get that eruption of cheer,” Mertens said.
“It’s very robust in the sense it gives us lots of options, but it’s also really easy to use. … It should give that ambient noise that we’re used to hearing at the ballpark, but also for the broadcast, too.”
Let’s face it — it’s going to be weird seeing the Mariners playing a game that counts at T-Mobile under these conditions. But we’re already starting to process these necessary alterations to time-honored routines. The Mariners are tasked with providing as engaging an atmosphere as possible for both the team on the premises, and the fans — the non-cardboard ones, wherever they may be.