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Turn down the fake crowd noise! Let's hear what MLB's weird postseason actually sounds like

Hannah Keyser
·5-min read

On Tuesday, Gio Urshela — who got his first postseason experience in 2017 playing for the Cleveland Indians against the New York Yankees — was welcomed back to Progressive Field as a Yankee with an ovation from the Indians’ family section. At least, according to a tweet I saw. Sounds like a cool moment. I wasn’t there because of coronavirus-necessitated limitations on travel. I didn’t notice it on the TV because the fake crowd noise was too loud.

It didn’t do much to help the Twins overcome the particularly confounding postseason curse that afflicts them, but Minnesota reliever Trevor May said that the several dozen families members and Minnesota staffers were a welcome addition to Target Field this week.

“I think that they took the challenge on themselves to add to the crowd noise,” May said. “You could hear individual people, but that’s better than nothing.”

Maybe he could hear individual people, but watching from home I couldn’t. And I want to!

After chugging baseball broadcasts with my eyeballs for too many hours in a row over the first two days of the 2020 postseason, I am left with a sink full of silverware I used to eat delivery and a Boomer-esque desperation for someone to turn down the volume on the crowd noise.

New York Yankees' Gio Urshela celebrates while running the bases after hitting a grand slam off Cleveland Indians relief pitcher James Karinchak in the fourth inning of Game 2 of an American League wild-card baseball series Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
Yankees third baseman Gio Urshela ripped a crucial grand slam in New York's clinching Game 2 victory over Cleveland. Wouldn't it have been nice to hear his reaction? (AP Photo/David Dermer)

A stadium with no flesh-and-blood fans, animated only by disembodied video game voices, is one of those unique 2020 experiences I hope to soon forget. Hearing the steady murmur of spectators that were nowhere to be seen was, as much as anything else, emblematic of the 60-game regular season. It was quirky and a little clever and kind of an art.

But now we’re (spiritually) in October and I want to feel the shift in the atmosphere, even if that means replacing the pre-recorded roar of 40,000 with the live reactions of a select few.

Including those who are actually on the field.

In some games, especially Tuesday, the fake crowd noise and music on the stadium speakers nearly drowned out the broadcast itself, or else made in-game interviews nearly impossible. (Much to some viewers’ relief, I’m sure.) This was compounded by the logistical limitations of calling games remotely and, in at least one instance, “major audio issues all game long.”

Everyone’s learning on the fly, doing their job under unprecedented circumstances at every turn this year. This is the first and hopefully only (ahhHHH!) year of postseason broadcasts from empty stadiums by analysts in studios across the country. It’ll get better, or at least smoother, (I can’t promise you’ll ever love these national broadcasts) as the month unfolds. The highly qualified people who produce these games will make tweaks as we get closer to the Fall Classic. And I would venture that far less crowd noise should be chief among them.

Part of what the artificial hum does, or is supposed to do, is mask the cross-team chatter or in-game exclamations that might prompt a wave of FCC complaints. Some of them still get through. Already this season, the lack of noise buffer has proved to be something of a rude awakening about what’s being said in the opposing dugouts. It’s the rare silver lining to this whole situation.

Unfortunately, we’re not supposed to hear that stuff. I know advocating for more of that genre of natural sound undercuts my case if anything. Players don’t want their private conversations broadcasted on ESPN and this is still supposed to be a family program. But if the entire Dodgers lineup has consented to do in-game interviews anyway, can we instead get more natural sound from the field level?

I don’t need baseball to be the soothing white noise of a summer evening now that we’re into October. MLB deployed the fan soundtrack specifically to go unnoticed, designed to make everything in this aberrant season fade away into a hazy verisimilitude of the game you’re used to. And honestly, it was pretty good — at least filtered through a screen into your living room. It remained a little echoey and jarring in person.

Applied to the postseason, however, that same soundtrack starts to feel like it flattens the stakes. They’re the same canned cheers that accompanied meaningless August games between the, like, two teams that didn’t even earn a playoff berth this year.

This is not the fault of the stadium operators behind the responsive symphony of gasps and applause, who are relative maestros of this medium, it’s just inherent to having recordings instead of actual people.

This postseason is specific, why shouldn’t it sound that way? It’s weird, and why shouldn’t it sound that way? Why shouldn’t it sound like personalized encouragement of a player’s nearest and dearest or the genuine eruption of euphoria from the winning dugout?

In fact, why shouldn’t it sound like a mostly empty stadium? They’re going to stage a postseason in the middle of the pandemic, they might as well be honest about what that sounds like.

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