The San Francisco Giants beat the Los Angeles Dodgers by five runs to four on Saturday and Hunter Pence got hit by a pitch. Hard.
He got nailed with such force you could almost feel the bruise in your living room.
Joe Davis and A.J. Pierzynski, who were announcing the game live for Fox Sports, emitted sounds of shock and sympathy as a stung Pence tried to shrug off the pain. But the woman sitting behind home plate had a more curious reaction.
Her smug smile never altered. Her goofy expression remained in place. In fact, the only visible indication that a human being just a few feet away had just made corporal contact with a baseball moving around 90 miles per hour was that she wavered slightly in the wind. It was breezy out.
Weird. Weird. Weird.
What other world could you use to describe the cutout fans now populating the seats formally known as the pride and joy of Stubhub?
So dystopian was their presence in the empty ballparks of Major League Baseball this opening weekend, so intense their silent mockery of actual active spectatorship, they constantly drew focus.
Some didn’t fit their own templates, leaving an eerie white border around their heads, as if human versions of a poorly photographed check rejected by the Chase banking app. Some were poorly lit; others came with a day-glo facial intensity to rival a close-up on the biggest HDTV at Costco. Many noggins were massive, making it look like the human players before them had agreed to have all of their heads permanently shrunk during the months of pandemic closure.
When they got shot from the rear — a camera angle to be avoided due to the lack of double-sided printing — they looked like a creepy collection of gravestones.
In the play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Tennessee Williams famously coined the term “No-neck monsters.” Ole’ Tennessee could never have conceived that creatures of a great writer’s fervent nightmares might dominate ballparks all over the country on a sunny summer weekend, grinning heads stuck on top of torsos like one massive carnival freak show built for the cameras, consumable only in semi-lockdown.
Ballparks appeared to have different rules of cutout decorum. At least Dodger Stadium seemed to have imposed a pre-condition of humanity. But in Oakland, the seats were variously occupied by an elephant, a bear or two, and what looked like a Muppet.
People, 2020 is something else.
Compared to the catastrophic kudzu known as digital fans, though, the cardboard fans had enough depth and soul to buy you a beer.
These gnats showed up from time to time on Fox Sports, appearing suddenly on wide shots in certain sections of the stadium while others remained starkly empty. Why, the viewer wondered, had these digital customers chosen to pack themselves into certain sections when so many seats elsewhere were going begging?
The mind went to the Fox control room where some pimply millennial likely was having a blast birthing cheering humans, in a team color of their choice, and then killing them off with the push of a button. They probably had the likenesses of a few former bosses in there.
All we needed was a fake audience track that sounded like someone had recorded the sounds in a stadium and then played them back at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Oh, wait. We got that too.
At one point during the Giants-Dodgers game, the digital fans did a digital wave, an especially galling intrusion on what should be the province of we carbon-based creatures, since it’s such a famously organic communal communication.
Clearly, Davis and Pierzynski had some kind of memo, from people who used to wear a suit, in their inboxes saying, “support the digital fans, we want people to accept them.”
And so they tried. Through their teeth. “Look, they’re doing a wave,” said Davis with a kind of verbal snarl. “Uh-huh,” said Pierzynski. The men quickly moved on. The digital fans did not.
Let’s just hope they move away. If they start filling out the stadia, Major League Baseball will start looking like a video game. This is not some Luddite romp. This is a serious issue, fellow live persons.
Already, you can watch FIFA 2000 re-creations of actual soccer games on YouTube and there have been times when it took a while for some of us to realize we were not watching human beings. It is a very short walk from digital fans to digital players who don’t cost owners money, don’t get hurt and don’t need to isolate. Already, there are people who could program an entire season for your entertainment, random occurrences and all, no human players involved.
The virtual people are coming for all our jobs. We do not need to open the gates wide for them. We have to fight for the humanity.
The MLB problem, of course, is that fans are such a part of the way games are televised, far more so than in soccer or basketball, where cameras rarely reach the upper levels. Baseball stadiums are structured so fans get close to the game, with seating sections jutting out at strange angles, offering up-close-and-personal vistas and even the chance to interfere, as some of us still see in our nightmares.
Frankly, empty seats tell a more honest story of baseball in a pandemic.
It’s a far better way to express the hope that things are coming back, will be coming back, and the realization that this cannot yet happen.
And it’s surely reasonable to give advertisers a larger canvas (the dancing M&Ms looked cheery and deserved all their allotted space) and, better yet, to allow a few thousand fans into the park. Keep them out in the fresh air and far from each other, sure, but at least permit the cameras to capture the messiness of humanity watching baseball and reacting honestly and truthfully in triumph and adversity.
They could represent the rest of us.
Then it would be bye-bye to the digerati and off to the recycling bin for the cardboard fans.
At least one of them took a real foul ball to the chin on Saturday, so he’s especially ready for the trash.
No guilt is called for. He’ll be smiling all the way.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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