For better or worse (much worse in the case of the Brewers' bats), baseball returned this weekend. It was obviously an opening day weekend like none other – and that's before we even mention the actual games being played on the field, with teams wearing new uniforms and results playing out with new rules.
Let's talk about what worked, what didn't and our generally conflicted feelings about new baseball in our new normal.
Baseball was my first sports love, and it'll always be my true sports love. So getting to hear that soundtrack to the summer again – the crack of the bat, a pitch slapping into the catcher's mitt, the banging on the garbage can lid – almost took me back to simpler, more normal times. (Almost ... )
Even with all of the oddness surrounding the sport, the game itself is still its unique perfect self: thrilling and soothing, intense and relaxing, bursts of action in a long and enjoyably lazy format, all at the same time. I missed seeing the Brewers on the field and rooting for my team. I missed hating the Cubs and harrumphing at Kyle Schwarber. I missed tuning in to random games across the country, with teams that barely ever play at normal nationally televised hours (Royals-Indians! Angels-Athletics!), and getting totally sucked into a tight game between guys I've never even heard of. For the past several months, we haven't had the distractions we normally have to get us through hard times and escape our woes; over the weekend, with the game on the radio, exciting and enraging us on a lazy late summer afternoon or night, we had it back. Kind of.
And the Brewers even got at least one win against the Cubs. Sure, they generally looked rough. (Anytime Orlando Arcia is your most consistent bat, something is going wrong.) But in a spring and summer full of DNPs, I guess a win or even a loss feels nice.
Bad: Baseball ... ?
In a twist that only everyone could see coming, the reconfigured baseball season may already have to call it quits due to an outbreak with the Miami Marlins. (Because of course it's a Florida team putting the entire sport at risk.) At least 13 players have already tested positive on the Marlins with more testing taking place today, hotels and locker rooms are being emergency cleansed, Miami's game tonight has been postponed along with the Yankees-Phillies game since the Marlins just played Philadelphia, the league is calling an emergency meeting, Miami's now currently on the hunt for replacement players because they barely have enough uninfected players to field a team and instead of talking about the game itself, we're talking about outbreaks and cancellations – which is what we wanted sports back to distract us from in the first place.
And the season is just a weekend old.
None of this is surprising. While baseball is a fairly social distanced sport and outdoors, there's still a lot of contact and closed spaces. But most shortsighted, unlike the NBA or NHL – both teams that have reported no positive tests in recent days – Major League Baseball didn't set up an isolated bubble or hub to keep players safe and lock out the spread. Instead of being proactive and overprotective at worst, the MLB now has a massive crisis on its hands with sick players, postponed games and a 14-way tie for the title of World Series champion. (Maybe they can each take one of the flags from the trophy as their prize?)
The worst part: They've sweated through all these negotiations and delayed their return and mismanaged the health precautions to the point of a potential cancellation after one whole weekend ... all for games that don't feel meaningful at all. If this was a normal season, I'd be nervous about the Brewers looking bad against the Cubs this weekend. But honestly, my reaction – as a Brewers fan since birth who loves baseball so much he travels to major and minor league parks each summer – has been an apathetic shrug. It's not a real season. The winner at the end won't be a real champion; they proved themselves over the course of barely a third of a regular season. One team can't even field a healthy squad right now. This season (if it even finishes) comes with a giant COVID-shaped asterisk – unlike the Premier League and even the NBA, which at least had months of results under their belts before the world shut down and are mostly just wrapping things up.
They somehow delayed for forever AND rushed into an unsafe season, for the right to play games that are just mere feeble distractions. And if I want a distraction, frankly, "Supermarket Sweep" is on Netflix; it's shorter, didn't put anyone's health at risk and won't regularly remind me that the world is broken right now. I love baseball and want it back ... but not like this.
Good: Personality at the ballpark
Major League Baseball has been searching for personalities and stars to make its game more appealing. Now, with all of the distractions honed away and the attention never more focused on the field (because it's not like there's anything or anyone else at the games right now), is the time to let them shine. As a result, you got nice moments like this:
Sure, there's something dystopian about players Purell-ing on the field – and also, I'm complimenting a Cubs player, which is causing a gag reflex – but it's also sweet and kind of adorable and a fun bit of personality on the field. It's charming AND health-conscious. Baseball should be encouraging more oddball behavior, more players mic'ed up on the field, more goofing around and more joy, in general. It's a 60-game weirdo season with an asterisk attached larger than center field – how about we let loose with the unwritten rules, and some of the written ones, and play for the love of the game? Because, like I said before, it's not like the championship will mean anything.
Also: Clone the Philly Phanatic and put him in every stadium across the nation.
He's the only crowd we need – which, on that note ...
Bad: Virtual crowds
Thanks to COVID-19, everyone is the Tampa Bay Rays this year, playing in front of roaring sold-out crowds of no one. The goal of bringing baseball back was to give people a sense of normalcy again (and also to make the owners money), but obviously games played in front of empty, silent, non-existent fans doesn't provide much of an escape. So teams and broadcasts have looked for other ways to bring life into their stadiums.
The piped-in crowd noise works pretty well – as long as it's pumped into the broadcast and not just the stadium. Premier League soccer broadcasts blend artificial crowd noise into their games, and it feels almost normal; baseball broadcasts that did that as well felt closer to reality too. And though the cut-outs are strange, they work well enough to put faces in the crowd, creating a charmingly awkward sense that these players are competing for SOMEBODY somewhere. (Though if we're going to put things in the seats, there's an obvious correct answer.)
If baseball is back for real and we have a season after all, petition to fill the stands with stuffed animals like they do for Korean Baseball. pic.twitter.com/hGChHizwKD — Tyler Roney (@TylerJRoney) June 23, 2020
The one approach that fully and completely did not work, though, was FOX's virtual crowds. Never mind that they looked like PS3 graphics and never gelled right with the game, reacting late and awkwardly to the big events on the field; the biggest problem was they were exclusively plugged in for just a few shots. So you'd see a home run fly into the crowded stands, then the camera angle would change to reveal that apparently that the fans were so amazed by the dinger that they evaporated into thin air. It's more disruptive than immersive, a weirdly obvious glitch in the matrix.
The point of these digital fans was to make the game feel more normal; instead, these strange uncanny valley fans just served as pointed reminders of how NOT normal things are – and how we're seemingly trying to ignore that fact rather than actually fix it.
Good: Brewers' new look
The Brewers may not have played well over the opening (and maybe closing?) weekend, but at least they looked good.
The Cubs series served as our first true look at the Crew's new retro-inspired duds in action – and as we thought when the uniforms were first unveiled, the new look is a home run. The slightly modernized ball-and-glove logo looks great and really pops on the cap, and while I was concerned about the font being too small or clunky when the jerseys were first revealed (why yes, I am a massive sports uniform nerd, thanks for noticing), in action, they're legible and not a distraction. And as predicted, those brand new blue uniforms with the block cursive "Milwaukee" and the old-school blue hat with the yellow front panel are already a tremendous fan-favorite look – one that would look even more stylish if they weren't on the wrong end of a 3-0 three-hit shutout.
Logo redesigns and updates can be a risky proposition. Sometimes you get the Seattle Kraken or the Milwaukee Bucks; other times, you get the Los Angeles Rams or the Marquette Gold. In this case, though, the Brewers crushed it like Yelich crushed his one hit so far on the season. (Hey, if you're gonna go 1-for-13, you might might as well make the one a homer.)
Bad: New extra innings rule
The strange shortened season has offered the MLB a chance to trot out some new rules and ideas, to see what works and doesn't work. Here's one that REALLY doesn't work: the new extra innings procedure, which dictates that when a game goes into extra innings, each team starts their half-inning at bat with a runner already on second base.
And it sucks.
I got to witness its suckage firsthand when baseball was testing out the concept in the minors two years ago, but this weekend, the majors officially put it in action during several games. As one of those baseball nerds who actually scores games, it ruins the scorecard. How are you supposed to plug it this phantom runner who magically appeared at second base? Is that an earned run for the pitcher if he scores? But more importantly, strategically, it's a bore, as any team with a brain will have its first batter bunt the runner over to third, then sacrifice fly the leading run in. Sure, the games this weekend didn't go exactly like that – the first extra innings game actually ended with a grand slam – but the reality is that most games will proceed rather boringly, with the metrics guiding the way toward the same repeated, risk-avoiding strategy.
But most of all, it ends games in strangely unsatisfying fashion. Instead of excitingly watching as a team gets a man on base and then desperately tries to work him around to score a leading or winning run, now ... the first batter just needs a hit. When the run from second eventually scores, the crowd barely even realizes the game's changed because they weren't even aware there was a guy there, because he's just ... been placed on second. Your brain feels like it missed something, like a step is missing – and that's because there is. It doesn't feel like a hard-earned victory; it feels like bowling with bumpers and, worst of all, like the game is embarrassed it's overstaying its welcome.
And in the end, what is this doing to help anyways? Is there really a casual fan out there watching and thinking, "Well, I've watched three hours of baseball – but another ten minutes? Well, now THAT'S too far." You've already stuck around for nine innings. It's like gorging at the all-you-can-eat buffet but turning down the after-dinner mint because you're watching your figure. Maybe if baseball wants to make itself more appealing to people, it should stop apologizing for being baseball.
Bad: Not being able to stream Bob Uecker
One of the great joys of baseball – even when your team is getting smoked by a touchdown – is listening to Bob Uecker call a game. It's part baseball broadcast, part story time around the fire with your kooky uncle who tells the best, craziest stories, all parts glorious – and considering Uecker is 86 years old, we frankly have less time to savor his unique calls and hilarious tangents than more.
So it's frustrating that, despite there being more media outlets and options than ever before, Uecker and 620 WTMJ's beloved calls are locked into only radio broadcasts. Due to the MLB's strict rights rules, WTMJ is prohibited from streaming the games on its website or via an app. So other than an old-fashioned radio, the only way to the hometown call is via MLB TV, the league's official streaming website, which lets you stream every team's out-of-market games live or on demand on your devices ... for $24.99 a month. (Or $59.99 for a year.) So I'd go the route of getting yourself a cheap radio. There is a free trial option, though ... wink, wink.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.