Baseball is going to look weird in 2020.
And it might sound even weirder.
Already, even though players are just stretching, tracking down fly balls, throwing bullpen sessions and taking batting practice during the MLB-branded "Summer Camp," the experience of baseball being played in an empty major league stadium is somewhat bizarre.
But once regular-season games start? It's going to be like a different game from a different universe.
We got a little taste of what it might be like Wednesday, when White Sox ace Lucas Giolito threw a simulated game at Guaranteed Rate Field, throwing at game speed while his teammates took game-style at-bats.
Sim games are not among the many newfangled baseball inventions for a pandemic-delayed season. They've been around for a while and they're always weird, with only one pitcher pitching, sitting in the dugout for 10 minutes to simulate the other half of an inning that is not actually being played, and then facing off against the same players who just backed him up defensively the last time he was out there.
But as we prepare for regular-season games without fans, this simulated game was perhaps more realistic than ever.
The silence was deafening, obviously. The roar of the crowd that would have accompanied back-to-back strikeouts to start off the game for Giolito was met with nothing. Tim Anderson swung and missed at Strike 3 and went back to the dugout. Luis Robert looked at Strike 3 and went back to the dugout. No clapping, no cheering, no blaring clip from Boz Scaggs' "Lido Shuffle," which the White Sox employed during Giolito ("Lido," "-lito," get it?) strikeouts in 2019.
But in the absence of crowd noise, there's an opportunity for a new aspect of entertainment to arise. Because you know what you could hear? Everything the players said. And some of it was pretty darn funny.
Simulated games don't have umpires, so it was on catchers Yasmani Grandal and James McCann to call Giolito's balls and strikes. And Grandal got into it. When Robert stared down that third strike, he made an exaggerated punch-out motion with his fist, earning laughs from the White Sox dugout, with one dugout denizen invoking the name of infamous umpire Joe West in a joking response. Grandal kept it up, feeding off the reaction a la Frank Drebin in "The Naked Gun," and punched out Zack Collins later in the sim game, earning more laughs.
When Nomar Mazara connected on a Giolito pitch for what most would have assumed would be a line drive to right field, the diminutive Nick Madrigal, perfectly positioned in an exaggerated shift, came up with a nice catch to steal a hit away from Mazara. The response from the dugout? "You got bad luck if you can't hit it over his head."
And there was more. Giolito started talking at McCann when the catcher got his pitcher for a double into the left-field corner. The energetic Anderson was pretty loud while cheering for his teammates from the dugout. Coaches could be heard shouting out instructions.
The absence of crowds means fans watching on TV might be able to hear things they've never heard before, adding a new element of entertainment.
"With (our) teammates, we’re going to mess around, we’ll be talking trash," Giolito said Wednesday. "I’m interested to see how that carries over once we get to the regular season. You can hear pretty much everything everyone is saying."
The White Sox will do their best to fill the fanless void at Guaranteed Rate Field. They announced Wednesday the ability for fans to have their likenesses on cardboard cutouts in the stands during the season-opening series against the Minnesota Twins. And players seem unsure about whether crowd noise will be played over the speakers once the games begin. That would be equally weird, though it might help out the players, grasping for any sense of normalcy in a season where their routine-oriented day-to-day work lives have been turned upside down.
But why not keep the crowd noise away and use this opportunity to show off a new element to the game?
TV broadcasts were hoping to mic players up and have them chat with announcers during games. We'll see if that pans out, though the lack of an agreement between the league and the players' union seemed to disperse any optimism of that happening on a regular basis. In place of that, this on-field chatter could be wildly entertaining.
"I think it might (add some more entertainment value)," manager Rick Renteria said. "The guys, they were chirping in the dugout today. It was fun to hear them. They're just like everybody else. You love to play the game, and you have an opportunity to go out and play in your home park, even though you're playing against each other. It's a nice energy to have. Who wouldn't want to play baseball in a big league park? And they share that joy that they all have when they are out there competing."
So get ready for it all: trash talk, disagreements with umpires, pitchers and hitters jawing back and forth, cheers from the dugout and just plain short jokes.
Baseball's going to sound mighty different in 2020.