BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 05/04/2020

Thiel: Would absence of fans alter MLB games?

An MLB game with no fans? Ex-manager Buck Showalter managed one once, and doesn’t recommend it. But plans are moving ahead if the virus moves on.

The four phases of Gov. Inslee’s plan for returning the state from the coronavirus shutdown. In the lower right corner, under phase four, which can begin no earlier than July 6, allows for the re-opening of businesses that have  “large sporting crowds.” / Office of the Governor

As everyday life slowly crawls back up to the hilltop from which it was thrown seven weeks ago, some of the daily incremental developments provide a glimpse of hope. Even for the return of sports.

That includes an update from Gov. Jay Inslee Friday that outlined the four phases he and public health officials want the state’s citizens to follow, lest we backslide from our quarantine results into an abyss from which even Seahawks coach Pete Carroll can’t happy-talk us out of.

Inslee’s timeline has phase four starting no earlier than July 6. He and public health officials caution the re-opening is, of course, subject to the whims of the coronavirus, as well as how disciplined and observant we are regarding maintaining our new habits.

Even if Washington helps lead the way with this slow, careful return, there’s no guarantee that teams in other states will be in the same public-health position to allow the return of spectator sports under relatively equal conditions in a championship season.

We are, for the moment, still the United States of America, but in the current pandemic subplot, we are the Disunited States of Ambiguity.

That is why MLB has put in so much time and effort to concoct a partial season that has a better chance to be completed independent of the decisions of multiple states.

Commissioner Rob Manfred put it this way in a letter to to employees last week, “While I fully anticipate that baseball will resume this season, it is very difficult to predict with any accuracy the timeline for the resumption of our season.”

One option under consideration, spelled out in an exhaustive story by ESPN’s Jeff  Passan, suspends the current leagues and divisions and instead places each of the 30 teams in one of three hubs in Phoenix, Dallas and Tampa. Every team plays two three-game series against all nine opponents for a total of 54 games. That gets MLB to September and a chance to see whether public-health officials will green-light a return to the affected home cities.

The three-hub option likely means a quarantine zone for all players, game/stadium personnel, TV crews, hotel and transport employees. But because the U.S. is so behind many countries in its ability to do mass testing with quick turnarounds, the games will almost certainly be played without fans.

Independent of this massive logistical undertaking is an emotional and psychological consequence of the fans’ absence that I hadn’t considered until Buck Showalter talked about it on a national ESPN radio show the past week.

A three-time American League manager of the year (he was Yankees skipper in 1995 when the Mariners beat New York in the semi-immortal ALDS series), Showalter was the Orioles manager on April 29, 2015 for the first and so far only MLB game played without fans.

Because of several days of racial conflict in the streets near Baltimore’s Camden Yards, police barred fans for a game against the White Sox the sake of safety. Apart from the serious social issues he addressed at the time, Showalter recalled that absence of fans changed something fundamental about the game.

“You need people there and saying, ‘Hey, it’s important what you’re doing. We’re counting on you,'” said Showalter, now an analyst for the Yankees’ YES network. “You need that emotional flicker, so to speak, that makes you realize why you do all these things, especially in baseball, where you play 162 games, seven days a week.

“That’s what I have trouble getting across to football coaches and even basketball coaches. We play every day. We need that emotion.”

Football’s once-a-week schedule and the more frequent pace of the calendars in basketball, hockey and soccer don’t compare to the dailyness of baseball.

“I think what really hit me was how much a lot of the emotion of the game is driven through the emotions of the fans,” he said. “We didn’t have any walk-up music. It was pure baseball. You could hear the announcers talking. You had to be careful about what you said to the umpires because they could hear every word. We didn’t have to use the bullpen phones. Heck, we could just yell down there. But it was really different.

“The novelty of it wore off very quickly.”

Showalter thought that players who rely on only on self-motivation lose an edge in the absence of the energy of fans.

“If you keep going to that well too often to self-motivate, it becomes a real issue,” he said. “There’s so many times in sports when you’re doing something so repetitiously that you kind of get into that automatic-drive mentality for a while.

“You need that extra juice.”

In a sport overtaken by analytics, it would hard for baseball to develop a metric for what Showalter was describing. Here’s a start.

K/N = Struck out napping. EWB = Error; watching birds.  CSn = Caught snoring.

It’s easy to say that players are paid so much money, the least they could do is pay full attention. But fans of all 43 years of Mariners baseball know that income has little influence on daily degree of diligence.

Barring another wave of the coronavirus, MLB seems determined to have Bubble Ball. If Showalter is right, perhaps the owners and players need to agree right now that upon completion of the season, all records should be destroyed and further conversations about 2020 be prohibited.



  • Cory Hume

    Art, in absence of baseball wanted to check if have you seen the SB Nation Dorktown 6 part series on Mariners? It is fantastic viewing and very well put together. Speaking the great language from Out of Left Field.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Cory. Will take a look.

      • Alan Harrison

        You’ll love it. It’s on YouTube.

    • Husky73

      Thanks for posting this. I’d never heard of it. Really, really good.

  • Joe_Fan

    As a huge, lifetime sports fan, what’s amazing to me is how quickly I don’t really think about sports anymore in terms of my daily life. Also, I hear what Bucky is saying, but I think after a few games the players would adapt. SportsCenter replays would remind them that they are still competitively playing the game and that they better bring it every game or they will embarrass themselves.

    • art thiel

      You’re crediting the logical mind too much. The concentration of every ballplayer, every cop, every teacher, every lawyer and every journalist drifts on occasion. Especially in an activity like baseball, where standing around consumes 80 percent of the clock.

  • Will Ganschow

    If a ball game is played in the forest, does it make a noise?

    • art thiel

      The sound of line drives off trees is impressive.

  • Alan Harrison

    I’ve also read recently that the players will not be stationed in the dugouts, but in the stands behind the dugouts so as to practice social distancing. The worst thing that could happen here (aside from people dying, of course) would be the entitlement 1% crowd showing up to take their places in the luxury boxes, because, well, “Don’t you know who I am?” But I can see that happening, can’t you?

    • art thiel

      That would be a very bad look for MLB, and it is aware. But even re-starting with game personnel only (no fans anywhere) may be seen as a bad look because all game personnel would be consuming testing kits not generally available now to the vast majority. Until testing is ubiquitous, pro sports would look terrible sucking up resources that need to go to the vulnerable.

  • 1coolguy

    The M’s don’t draw anyway, so they may actually have an advantage playing before an empty house!

    • Tian Biao

      right! and maybe a new marketing slogan: empty seats r us! or, look ma no fans! or maybe: no fans, no difference.

      • art thiel

        If no teams can have crowds, no need for marketing.

    • art thiel

      Actually, they were 20th in MLB last year.

      • 1coolguy

        Wow! So even though they are perennially one of baseballs worst teams, going on 20 years, they are 20th! My god, this proves there are too many wealthy tech people in this town. Youngsters who blow through cash and have never witnessed good bb!

  • Tian Biao

    I’ve always felt that pro baseball players tend to take fans for granted. this might help them appreciate us a little more. conversely, I’ve always taken baseball for granted, all day all summer. I will appreciate it more when it returns, possibly even the M’s. possibly.

    • Kirkland

      To me, baseball is less dependent on fan atmosphere than the other sports. Most of the season, people go to games as much to relax (sun, beer, hot dogs) as they do for the game. It’s not until the pennant chase and the playoffs that you see the fans get as loud and bring out the colors as an average football game.

      • art thiel

        Again, the drama in the potential of games without fans is its impacts on players. But you’re right, baseball fans are almost as interested in each other and the video screens as the game.

    • art thiel

      Funny what absence does to things we considered mundane.

  • ReebHerb

    Do something even if it’s wrong. We have to start somewhere. Some players mail it in as is when their teams are out of contention in September. What’s the difference? Other professionals are being asked to put in a productive day’s work at home. Ball players can meet the challenge.

    • art thiel

      I understand the impulse, but responding emotionally with actions that help prolong a deadly viral outbreak is wrong in the worst way. I agree we have to start somewhere, but big sports are down the list of priorities.

  • Kirkland

    I’m still irritated by that Baltimore game. The Washington Nationals offered to let the teams play in their stadium, but because Peter Angelos has a grudge against the Nats infringing on his territorial rights, he refused and insisted on playing the game in Camden Yards, right in the middle of the riots. Animosity imperiled the teams’ safety.

    As for empty stadium games, I’m used to it in soccer (a common punishment for racist fans or financial shenanigans), and the first week of Aussie Rules football was played in empty stadiums until the league decided to suspend the season. It takes several minutes of adjustment to the absence of fan noise and colors, but if it’s a close game you wont notice that absence as much.

    • art thiel

      I forgot about Angelos’s pettiness. Thanks for the reminder.

      I think the TV viewer will adjust quickly. But the impacts on players is more interesting, especially because baseball has so many lulls in action.

  • jafabian

    How can anyone boo the Astros if fans won’t be at the game? Remember back in the day when every hated them? Those were the days….

    • art thiel

      We’ll hear the trash cans much more clearly.

  • Kirkland

    Interesting new development: ESPN is now broadcasting the Korean baseball league’s games. The games will be in empty stadiums for now, so we can see how their players adjust to the lack of fans.

    • art thiel

      I’ll trust you’ll supply me a research paper.