It’s Major League, but less than an event without the fans


BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)–Wednesday qualified as one of the more unusual days of my long journalism career. For starters, it was the first time I had to agree to have my temperature taken to gain admittance to a game. I was fine, which wasn’t surprising since I’d had my annual checkup the day before.

A Blue Jays official escorted me to my seat in the press box, which had been set up near the top of Section 102 behind home plate at Sahlen Field. I have to admit, it was the best seat I’d had for a Major League baseball game since a glorious Sunday at Wrigley back in 1991. 

There were eight other writers, each equipped with tables, separated by six seats and wearing masks in accordance with the coronavirus mandates. My heart sank a bit, knowing that there would be no dinner buffet, always a high point in the real press box.

The first thing I noticed when I gazed out on the field was that the advertisements on the outfield fences were from Canadian companies: Rogers (of course), PizzaNova, Sobeys, Pinty’s, Acer. Thankfully, there was an ad for Tim Hortons, which as all of us Timmy lovers know, transcends all borders.

There was also a Black Lives Matter sign on the right-field fence, a reminder of the social issues tearing at the country. On the drive in to the city, I’d heard the NBA players were boycotting Wednesday’s playoff games to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, adding a further surreal tone to the proceedings. 

There were also three MLB games postponed due to player boycotts on Wednesday. The Jays-Red Sox game went on, though reports show the Red Sox were meeting about the possibility that the players might decide not to play as a protest in Thursday’s series finale.

At least no fans were inconvenienced. There are no fans at the NBA or MLB games during the pandemic. At Sahlen Field, there are about 2,000 cardboard cutouts of people in the lower deck. Above them on the third-base line is a blue-and-white sign that reads, “The Team Behind the Team.” 

It was pretty eerie, and it got more so as the game approached. I knew there would be no fans, but at some point the lack of movement, of noise, the slow, anticipatory gathering of a real baseball crowd, became more palpable. 

There was no chatter, no fans hanging along the baselines for autographs, the way my son did when he was a kid at games in  Toronto. That human element is gone. No kids clamoring for players to acknowledge them, no one tossing a ball over the rail. 

The lack of fans hit home during the anthems. No one singing along. I checked to see if any of the ballplayers had taken a knee in solidarity with the other pro athletes. I didn’t see any. Maybe they’ll do it tonight, after they discuss what action, if any, they’ll take to show support.

I should have been more excited about seeing the Red Sox, the team I grew up rooting for in Rhode Island. My enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that they were 10-20 at the midpoint of the truncated MLB season, a pace that would result in their worst finish since 1965 — the year I became a fan at age 9.

And of course, I’m supposed to show a great sense of civic triumph for Buffalo getting to host big-league baseball for the first time since the 1880s. It’s nice to see Bob Rich’s MLB dream become reality, even if there are no fans and Buffalo was a reluctant choice.

But there was a hollow feeling in the park, suitable for cardboard fans. It was like watching a video game. Josh Kantor, the organist at Fenway Park, has called this year’s MLB “illusion and artifice,” an attempt to mimic the normal. That’s well said, and a little bit sad. 

There is something to be said for having your games broadcast to the world. On Tuesday, I watched the game from high up in the Seneca One Tower. The city has an undeniable splendor from up high. I realized what Mindy Rich meant when she referred to the stadium as that “beautiful old lady.” 

But the experience of these games is the very antithesis of what Bisons game have been for more than three decades — a vibrant, fun and affordable family atmosphere, a summer outdoor gathering where, as Mindy would say, every game was an event.

Oh, the Jays pipe in music and crowd noise and drumbeats that would inspire real fans to cheer. But they can’t conceal the uneventful tableau, the artifice. It lacks that human quality that was the essence of Bob and Mindy’s baseball dream. You can’t replicate that.

“No, you can’t,” said Bisons president Mike Buczkowski, who has been with the team since 1987. “Without fans, it makes everything different. Usually when you’re here before a game during the day, this is what it’s like. Then you get closer to the game and hear people coming in , the buzz of a crowd. That’s so much a part of the event, the experience of being around people, and we just can’t have that right now.”

But it’s still the Major Leagues, and there’s something to be said about watching Vlad Guerrero lash a double into the corner, or Rowdy Tellez launch a long homer into the right-field bleachers. 

“You look out and they’re wearing the Boston Red Sox uniform and the Toronto Blue Jays uniform,” ‘Booch’ said, “and it’s a real Major League game.”

True, if not a very compelling one. The Jays won, 9-1, getting two home runs from Tellez. One thing about baseball, you see something new every game. Julian Merryweather, coming off Tommy John surgery, went two innings in his first big-league start for the Jays. 

Shun Yamaguchi, son of a Sumo wrestler, worked four to get his first MLB win at age 33. Yamaguchi was suspended for the second half of the season in Japan three years ago for assaulting a security guard in a hospital. One for a future trivia quiz, perhaps? 

Oh, there was a persistent rain during the middle part of the game. You could hear it pelting the top of the covered seats and the cutout fans. Mike Harrington had the tweet of the night when he said he hoped the cutouts had brought their umbrellas. 

Hey, we needed rain. It’s almost impossible to get a tee in the ground on the golf courses, and the plants in the back yard have been desperate for water. 

Anyway, the Buffalo Blue Jays went back over .500 with the victory, and sit in eighth place in the American League, which is good enough for a playoff spot in this year’s expanded postseason field. 

Maybe Mike Billoni wasn’t so crazy when he suggested that Buffalo might host a World Series this season, which would necessitate delaying the publishing date of “The Seasons Of Buffalo Baseball.”

It might take a World Series game to get me back at a Jays game in the current lifeless format. I’d rather go back and watch from the Seneca One Tower  with the Trainwreck Sports gang. Fittingly for a pandemic, this brand of baseball is best viewed from a distance. 

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