BOSTON (CBS) — Playing in empty stadiums is something baseball players are going to have to get used to this season. For many of the folks calling the game on TV or radio, they have to get used to not being in those empty stadiums.
That is the case for the NESN crew of Dave O’Brien, Jerry Remy and Dennis Eckersley. The trio called Tuesday night’s Red Sox-Blue Jays exhibition a few miles down the street from Fenway Park, at NESN’s Watertown studios, which will serve as their new broadcast booth for this year’s 60-game season. That goes for both home and road games, as the crew will not be traveling with the team this year.
It’s a whole lot different than being able to look out and see just about anything going on on the baseball diamond, but it was all done as a matter of safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“When they told me what they were planning on doing I appreciated it because I thought it was the safest way to do it,” said Remy, who has battled lung cancer for years and is at a higher risk for COVID-19. “If there aren’t fans in the stands what’s the difference if we’re there, and if we’re not on the road anyways we may as well do all the games from studio.”
“If we have to get all three of us together and that is the best way to do it, it was a no brainer for me,” said Eckersley.
Instead of sitting high above home plate with one of the best views in the ballpark, the trio now calls a studio their office on game days. They each get their own tables with plenty of room between them for social distancing purposes, and those tables are filled with monitors of all the action going on just down the road.
While the setup is a lot different than what they’re used to, the announcers don’t think they’ll miss too much of the action.
“We’ve got everything we have in a typical game, and we also have our giant monitor that gives us Fenway from center field into home plate,” said O’Brien. “I can’t think of anything else, short of being there and hearing the crack of the bat and flight of the ball. I don’t think we want anything else as far as angles.”
Much of what O’Brien sees in his usual seat isn’t from a monitor or a replay anyways, but in what the players on the field tell him about a play that is developing. Not getting to see that aspect of the game will be his biggest challenge this season.
“Most of what I see is between the white lines,” said O’Brien. “This is different; I’m seeing what the fans at home are seeing and I have to anticipate what is happening. An outfielder will always tell you how far the ball is hit. You look at their first step and don’t even look for the ball. Now I’m relying on a monitor to tell me where the ball is going. It may be a split second or a second or two to figure out, but that’s longer than I’m used to because it’s usually instantaneous.”
Remy says it’s the natural sounds of the game that they’ll miss the most — along with the soundtrack normally provided by the 35,000 fans who pack the stadium every night.
“If anything, it’s when you’re at the ballpark and when there is a home run hit, you can almost tell on contact if it’s going to be gone or not,” explained Remy. “Just the way it sounds and travels through the outfield, I think that’ll be more difficult on a TV than if you were at the ballpark.”
No matter the struggles that may lie ahead, the three are happy to be back to calling baseball games. But they all admitted that they’ll never get used to seeing an empty ballpark, even with fake crowd noise being pumped in to create the illusion of a packed house.
The fake crowd noise, however, is a decent backup plan.
“As soon as I put my headset on, it had that buzz of being at the ballpark,” Eck said of Tuesday night’s exhibition.
“For me, it’s so important. I can’t imagine calling a game in dead silence,” said O’Brien. “My family watched Tuesday night and thought it sounded like a normal game. If you have your back to the screen, it sounds like 35,000 at Fenway Park, which I thought was great. That’s exactly what we’re looking for. From a play-by-play standpoint, I can’t imagine doing a game that sounds like no one is there. If affects our rhythm between the three of us, and if there is no noise, it causes us to feel we have to fill the silence.
“I think it worked very well. Still room for some tweaking, but I think it was very effective,” added O’Brien.
Remy, 67, has had to miss several road trips over the last few years due to health concerns. He said he hasn’t left his house much since the pandemic started gripping the country, and one of the few benefits of the odd season ahead is he doesn’t have to worry about travel.
“As far as flights go and all the hotels, I don’t miss that at all. I have no desire to get on a plane and go somewhere.” he said. “I’ve been doing that since I was 21 – no desire for me.”