Opening night was extraordinarily different from any other one in baseball’s long and storied history.
It forced a unique and makeshift broadcast for ESPN when the Nats hosted the Yankees in an empty ballpark. The game was called by ESPN’s #A team of Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez, sitting in the network’s studio on either ends of a table, versus nudged together shoulder to shoulder inside a confined broadcast booth.
The two announcers deserve an A for their broadcast.
Comments and notes:
- Unless you knew in advance that the broadcasters were anywhere other than the ballpark you’d never know it. At least not from the naked ear. The feel was essentially the same as most other broadcasts albeit that the announcers perspective was at times limited, situated as they were, hundreds of miles from the stadium.
- Vasgersian said their view in the studio where cameras and monitors were conveniently situated was better than being in the ballpark because the broadcast booth in Washington is up in the nosebleeds, almost eye to eye with the top of the Washington Monument. Right on cue, ESPN showed a wide shot of the field from the empty broadcast booth and indeed it was a quite distance up from the playing field. Vasgersian and Rodriguez mentioned how difficult it is judging distances from such a height.
- The announcers were at ESPN’s control center in Bristol and had every camera at their access. In other words, ESPN’s director was choosing the pictures in Bristol not in a truck outside the ballpark. During the game, a lightning threat forced some cameras to be turned off leaving the voices with even fewer angles to call the game. Vasgersian did a good job though to tell the fans why they weren’t able to see the typical outfield angles and instead had to see things from behind home-plate. This seemed to be the biggest technical setback. Otherwise, things went smoothly.
- The absence of fans was glaring. Rodriguez joked that Delta Airlines must have loved the decision to leave the seats vacant because the airline’s names is plastered on many seats and visible to television viewers.
- At the beginning of the broadcast Vasgersian noted how the Nationals will pump in crowd noise into the stadium and have an organist too. As the game went on you could hear the fabricated noise, pumped up to a higher volume after each Max Scherzer strikeout.
- With no fans in the stadium, we thought we’d hear the grunts of pitchers and the sound of the ball hitting the bat. But while Vasgersian and Rodriguez talked about hearing the “beautiful” sounds of baseball, it was rare that we were privy to the ambient sounds on the field.
- Alex Rodriguez compared the experience to playing in high school in front of 100 or so fans. A-Rod makes the point that having no fans will be great for some players, yet troublesome for others. Rodriguez uses Giancarlo Stanton as an example of a player who will benefit from no fans, because Yankee fans didn’t always embrace him. Last year, Stanton heard a smattering of boos at Yankee Stadium.
- With this season already being the craziest one on record, it is only fitting that new rules come into play too. There is now a universal designated hitter for both the American and National Leagues, relief pitchers must face a minimum of three batters, extra innings will now start with a runner on second, pitchers can have a small wet rag in their back pocket to help with grip, and on Thursday, MLB announced the playoffs will expand to sixteen teams.
- Rodriguez says he loves the universal DH and what it means for offense in the league. He says pitchers might be upset about not hitting but the fans won’t be. Rodriguez believes the universal DH will help NL teams like the Cubs, Cardinals and Nationals because they have players who aren’t known for playing good defense but are great hitters and now can play every day. Rodriguez is a fan of the other rules changes because he likes the idea of doing things that will “disrupt” the game in a season where everything is already different. It will be a good opportunity he says to assess whether the rules are good and whether they should stick.
- Commissioner Rob Manfred joined the broadcast to explain the new 16 team playoff format. Eight teams from each league will qualify for the playoffs, the top two teams from each division and then the remaining two teams with the best records. The first round will consist of three games. All three will be played at the higher seed’s ballpark. After that, it will return to the regular MLB playoff format. Both broadcasters loved the idea because it adds to an already chaotic season.
- Rodriguez spoke about the change in technique by Yankees’ pitcher Gerrit Cole that turned him into one of the best pitchers in baseball. Alex pointed out that Cole went from pitching east to west when he was a Pirate to now pitching north to south like the great Nolan Ryan. What he means by this is instead of pitching at the same height in the strike zone and going from right to left with the ball placement, Cole now uses the top and bottom of the strike zone, which is much more effective when pitching.
- Alex also believes that with no fans in the stadium and after losing some weight in the offseason the new “Leaner and sweeter” Giancarlo Stanton should be able to return to his MVP form of a few years ago. Right after he said so in the first inning, Stanton hit a home run. Later in the game after Gleyber Torres walked to load the bases, Rodriguez said that since Stanton homered off a fastball in his last at bat, he should look for an off-speed pitch over the plate early in the count. Stanton got a slider over the plate and banged a single on the very next pitch.
- With this being baseball’s opening day it is usual for the broadcasters to discuss their expectations for the rest of the league. But they didn’t go to into depth. Rodriguez says that this year’s Yankees reminds him of their teams in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, A-Rod says, they were an ace pitcher away from winning the World Series and when they added C.C. Sabathia in the off-season for 2009 they were able to win it all. He believes Cole will have the same effect on this Yankee team that C.C. had on the 2009 team. Rodriguez and Vasgersian also believe the delay to start the season helped the Yankees because Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and James Paxton all would have been out for the first few months, but now they’re healthy and ready.
- Rodriguez notes how much he dislikes the new way Gary Sanchez is catching with one knee on the ground. He believes it will help Sanchez frame a few more pitches but doesn’t believe it will be worth the risk of letting wild pitches get passed him. He was adamant about this point.
- Rodriguez believes the delay was good for the Nats too. It gave them time to get over the World Series win and avoid any hangover that many defending champs suffer. It also allowed the starting pitchers to rest for a little while longer to heal their arms after the long postseason.
- Vasgersian and Rodriguez did a fine job keeping the broadcast light and humorous, distracting viewers from the real world for a few hours. Vasgersian didn’t use stories to provide humor, instead he commented on certain situations in a comedic way. After Stanton’s moonshot, Vasgersian pointed out how the, “Guy that bought the worst seat would have gotten that souvenir.” And how the stadium worker is going to have a lot of souvenirs after this season. Vasgersian quips, suggesting that a tapeworm might have gone through the Yankees clubhouse because not only did the players lose weight like Stanton and Luke Voit but also their third base coach Phil Nevins lost weight and is in better shape.
- Rodriguez had the only real anecdote of the game, mentioning that at one of the scrimmages in an empty ballpark, an opposing coach told his batter that Scherzer’s slider was flat and Max immediately stepped off the mound and yelled, “There’s nothing wrong with my slider.”
- There were a few things not covered by the broadcast team that I would have liked to see, including the attempted bid Rodriguez is making at buying the Mets, although it is understandable why ESPN and MLB wouldn’t want him to elaborate on this topic. Alex is unlikely to work Mets games this season for that reason.
- The only other thing that I was hoping to hear was Rodriguez’ thoughts about how managers will handle slumping players during a shortened season. Normally if a player slumps for twenty games or so the manager might leave him in to let the player break out of it, but with 102 fewer games, are the managers able to still use this strategy?
- Overall, Vasgersian and Rodriguez did well calling this shortened game against all the inherent obstacles.