Cardboard Fans

Photo: iStock

I love watching Major League Baseball games on television, but because I also have another life, I confine my love to watching one game a week. I have accomplished this during the last five years by rooting for a particular ball player, a pitcher, named Steven Matz. He pitches for the Mets about every five days, which I find out in advance because the managers post the names of the pitchers a day or two before the actual game.

The reason I chose Steven Matz is that he is an eastern Long Island boy, the only one from these parts playing in the majors today, one who people had hoped would be a big star. The East End has not produced a big baseball star since Carl Yastrzemski, the son of a Bridgehampton potato farmer who won the Triple Crown in 1967. Best batting average, most home runs and most runs batted in all at the same time.

Matz, in his rookie year five years ago, looked as if he might be the successor to Yaz. Matz has a wicked curve, a fine slider and a fastball he seems to be able to place precisely where he wants it. Matz missed being Rookie of the Year that first year because he came late to the season. And his second year was as good as his first. In the last few years, however, he’s struggled. Things go wrong and he loses focus to worry about them. Indeed, as the commentators pointed out after last year, 30 batters hit home runs off him in his 27 starts in 2019, almost a league record. Groan.

I did think that this year, with the empty stadiums, it might be better for him. With nobody there, it might feel more like an exhibition game, so there would be no crowd to get on him. But the home runs have kept coming.

Of course, the first game I watched this season was not a Mets game but the Opening Day game between the Yankees and the Washington Nationals. I wanted to see how TV would handle a game with nobody there. They did it very badly.

The cameras dwelt too often on the empty seats. There were no crowd noises, which we had been told would be piped in. It was spooky. (In later games there was canned applause, as in TV shows in the old days. And it helped.)

At one point in that season opener, after a home run by slugger Giancarlo Stanton bounced around in the empty left field seats, one of the announcers, the one who usually roves the stands interviewing people, wondered if it would be all right if he went out there and retrieved that ball. The cameramen obligingly showed it between two of the rows. Imagine. A souvenir home run hit by Giancarlo Stanton.

“Well, it would be all right with me,” the lead announcer said. “I give you permission.”

But a minute later, before the wandering announcer headed out into the wilderness of the stands, the announcer who gave the permission said, “Wait, I’ve just been informed we are not supposed to do that, so no, you can’t go.”

“Well, it was just a thought,” the second announcer said.

The camera went back to show the lonely ball.

“I wonder who does pick up those balls,” one of the announcers asked.

“I dunno,” another replied.

After that game, I began watching Matz pitch.

The announcers were enthusiastic about him. They said the coaches were enthusiastic about him. “His fastball is faster,” one of the announcers said. “And his control is better.”

And it was. Until the opposing batters began blasting home runs off him again. It was the same old, same old. Though in the dugout after the home run, there were not the same celebrations as in the year before. No high fives for the man who had hit it. No body bumps. And of course, everybody in the dugout, including the manager, was wearing a mask.

And there were other changes from prior years. There was still arguing with the umpire allowed, but it had to take place at a proper social distance. There was to be no chewing tobacco, with its frequent spitting. Dugouts and bullpens were enlarged to try to keep at least a semblance of six-foot distancing. A wet rag would be allowed for a sweating pitcher, but it could not be where he could easily reach it on the mound. Of course, all members of each team would be tested for COVID-19 daily before a game. A COVID-positive would result in more testing and an appropriate postponement for the team involved.

As the season wore on, the TV coverage got better, with the cameras focusing more on the action and less on the lack of people in the stands. tThe background noise got better, too. Discreet cheering would rise up when something happened that deserved it, and in more boring moments, the cheering included canned urging on of the home team.

And more and more of the 40,000 or so seats began to be occupied by cardboard cutouts. As for the people in the cutouts—men, women, children, etc.—well, I don’t know who the people on the cutouts were. Members of the team’s family? Avid fans allowed to pay a fee to get their photograph on the cardboard as if they were there?

Once during a Mets game, a home run began bouncing around in the empty left field seats with the “crowd” roaring its approval, but the camera, focusing only for a moment on the lonely ball, shifted to something going on in the right field stands.

It was a mascot. He is an eight-foot-high oversized and overweight replica of Big Bird from Sesame Street, complete with orange beak and yellow feathers, and he was using one of his wings to slap at a particular cardboard cutout. He’d hit it and it would fold backwards, then right itself, and he’d hit it again.

“There’s one of the fans taking a beating,” one of the announcers said.

“Who is it?”

“Dunno.”

It looked very much like Rudy Giuliani.

There have been other incidents. I’ve read that many fans have become frustrated they can’t go out to the ballpark to boo the Houston Astros, who recently admitted they cheated to win the 2017 World Series. They’d steal catcher’s signs informing batters of what the next pitch would be by banging a bat on a metal garbage can near the dugout. As a result of this infraction, it was decided by baseball management that although they would not deny the Astros their win, they would require that it be recorded with an asterisk next to it in the record books—the asterisk indicating they won it by cheating.

Still, some baseball fans have figured out a way to heckle the Astros. One group last week hired a towplane to fly around above Oakland’s stadium, where they were playing, towing a big sign reading HOUSTON ASTERISKS.

Jon Wilson, who organized the GoFundMe page that paid for the towplane, said he hoped to get enough money to have a towplane drag this sign over every game the Astros play this year.

I don’t know where it all goes from here. I did watch part of a basketball game the other day, and the cardboard cutouts had videos of individual people on them. The videos clapped and applauded. They adjusted their hats. They talked to one another. All rather random, of course, but really, Wow!

And then there was this:

“Well, everybody,” an announcer said, “here we are, the seventh inning stretch. Everybody up.”

But the cardboard people did not move. Nor did they sing. However, the loudspeakers did have a crowd happily begin to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Take me out with the crowd.”

You gotta love it. And by the way, people do. Watching baseball on TV is up this year.

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