What does the Phillie Phanatic do without fans? How do you make an empty ballpark not sound eerily quiet? And what can you do with more than 40,000 unoccupied blue seats?
“We’re trying to make it as normal as possible,” Phillies executive vice president David Buck said as the team prepares to play 30 games at Citizens Bank Park amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Phillies will pump canned crowd noise through their PA system, cardboard cutouts of fans will fill the seats, and the team’s popular mascot will roam the ballpark alone while practicing social distancing. The Phillies begin their 60-game season at home on July 24, and they are trying to make a season played during a pandemic not feel like a season played during a pandemic.
“Some of these meetings have been pretty interesting because there’s so many different ideas,” Buck said of the team’s plans. “And some sound good until you say, ‘How exactly would that work again?’ ”
The crowd noise, which will be audible on the TV broadcasts, will be audio tracks pulled from Sony’s popular video game, MLB The Show. The Phillies will use the crowd noise on Sunday when they play an exhibition game against Baltimore. The cheers -- maybe even some South Philly boos -- won’t be just for the game’s big moments.
“It’s a competitive issue because you don’t want it so quiet in there,” Buck said. “Say a catcher is moving inside or outside, you don’t want the batter to be able to hear that. You don’t want the batter to hear the shortstop yell to the second baseman, ‘Move over to your left.’ You do need some ambient noise in there. You don’t want to blare it out and be ridiculous, but you do need to be fair.”
The Phillies welcomed 2,727,421 fans last season as attendance spiked by nearly 570,000 fans with the arrival of Bryce Harper. Buck said the team is hoping to have fans at the ballpark later this season, but that’s far from guaranteed. The Phillies have offered refunds for tickets bought this season and are allowing season-ticket holders to roll over their payments to next season.
The fans might not be in the seats this summer, but they will still be given the chance to have their likenesses in them. Several teams have rolled out plans for fans to purchase cardboard cutouts to occupy the seats, and the Phillies should announce their plans soon.
The Oakland Athletics will even send you a baseball if a foul ball hits your cardboard cutout. The Mets announced last week that they, too, will be filling their seats with cardboard cutouts and the proceeds would go to a COVID-19 relief fund. The Phillies will likely follow a similar plan.
“We have something cool planned for the first three games,” Buck said of the team’s cardboard cutouts.
Dan Baker, the team’s longtime public address announcer, will be in the ballpark and walk-up music will be played for each Phillies batter. The team is working on a way to allow fans at home to see what they would normally see on the scoreboard as a second-screen experience through the team’s app or website.
Major League Soccer used scoreboards this weekend to display fan reactions from home during their tournament in Florida. The Phillies could do something similar.
The challenges of replicating the in-game experience are increased by social distancing as MLB’s operations manual places a limit on how many people can be in the ballpark to operate scoreboards. For a typical game, the Phillies have 18 or 19 people working on their scoreboard production known as Phanavision. This season, they’ll have just six or seven.
“It’s really hard,” Buck said. “MLB wants us to put on a show, but they don’t want us to go crazy. There’s not any money coming in, so you can’t have 20 people in there running a great show for no fans. Here’s the other thing: We start next Friday. Aug. 1, it could be much different, and then Aug. 15 ... we’re just going to build on it. At some point, we’d like to have fans, and then you’re a lot closer to normal than you’re starting with.”
The Phillie Phanatic, per MLB guidelines, will not be allowed to be on the field or on the dugout. But the furry, green mascot will not have to watch the action from the Galapagos Islands. The Phanatic will be at Citizens Bank Park and is currently trying to figure out how to entertain without a crowd.
“The first game, he’s not going to be really sure what to do, and then by the third game, he’s going to have three really cool plans,” Buck said. “He may get a lot of TV time. He’ll be running around Ashburn Alley even though it’s going to be closed. He’ll be doing stuff like that.”
No matter if the Phillies are pegged to be good or bad, their home opener is traditionally one of the highest-attended games of the season. It’s a civic holiday and a symbolic ending of another cold winter. The team enters from center field, a choir sings God Bless America, someone notable throws out the first pitch, the players line up on the baseline, Harry Kalas’ son sings the national anthem, and a new season begins.
But this season, the opener will be in the middle of summer and without fans in the seats. So how do the Phillies treat an opener in a ballpark closed to fans?
The players will be introduced, but they likely won’t stand on the baseline, as they would have to be 6 feet apart. The anthem will not be sung in person, but instead on a prerecorded video that will play on Phanavision for an empty ballpark and for the fans who would have packed Citizens Bank Park to hear from home.
“And then 1 percent of normalcy will happen,” Buck said.