There are fewer more optimistic days in the sports universe than Major League Baseball’s Opening Day.
For many, it truly marks the first day of spring; a time for hope, change, opportunity, and renewal. It represents a clean slate, with everyone’s record the same and all 30 teams dreaming of a chance to create October memories that would last a lifetime. With vaccine rollouts gaining steam in the U.S. and cities and municipalities letting more fans at stadiums, there’s a growing sense that things may slowly, finally, begin a return to normalcy.
Where this change won’t be occurring is in MLB’s broadcast booths across the country. After a truncated 60-game regular season in a pandemic-shortened 2020 that essentially served as a trial run for so many, announcers will still be at team ballparks for home games and not travel on the road, calling games from their home park or a studio for at least the first half of the season. Awful Announcing spoke with three MLB broadcasters, two play-by-play voices and one analyst, to get their thoughts on how much their work changed last year, how a closed clubhouse made their jobs much more difficult and whether pandemic-era measures could end up as permanent fixtures.
The world feed and remote broadcasts
Without travel last season, both home and away telecasts had to rely on what’s called a world feed, with the home production staff providing the camera shots for both teams. For Bally Sports Kansas City’s Ryan Lefebvre, the Royals play-by-play announcer was concerned that calling a road game from a television monitor wouldn’t be Major League quality. Those fears were amplified during KC’s first exhibition game in St. Louis against the Cardinals.
Doing the game remotely, the Cards had runners at 1st and 3rd with one out when outfielder Alex Gordon caught a fly ball. As the runner at 3rd was tagging up and trying to score, Gordon threw out the runner going to 2nd base for the final out of the inning. While the world feed didn’t show whether the run scored before the 3rd out was recorded, Lefebvre heard someone say “no run, no run.” Assuming it was the umpire, he informed his viewers that the run didn’t count.
“We went to break and I was like gosh, that could have been somebody yelling from the dugout or anybody saying that,” Lefebvre said.
In the 1st inning of their first regular season game, the Royals are in Cleveland and Adalberto Mondesi is on at 1st base. He tries to steal 2nd and there was a really close play, with the camera operator in Ohio getting a really nice, tight shot of the action.
“But it was so tight that they took the umpire out of the picture,” Lefebvre said.
Broadcasters are so used to telling stories and relaying anecdotes and then having their cameras focus on that individual to give the audience a visual aid. But linger on that person for too long in the world feed and the other team just gets an irrelevant shot. Telecasts across baseball were limited and diminished by how generic so much of the camera work had to be.
Not getting the shots you wanted at all times took a lot of getting used to.
For Geoff Blum, the analyst for Houston Astros games on AT&T SportsNet Southwest, that meant getting used to how home teams would operate world feeds in different ways. Calling away games from a studio rather than at Minute Maid Park, calling games from a monitor meant that you were always going to miss something, which is something you never really want to convey to an audience that’s relying on you to be their eyes and ears.
“That preconception is a little intimidating at times,” Blum said.
Astros play-by-play broadcaster Todd Kalas could only see so many things at once, so Blum took it upon himself to act as a spotter during games. On close hits down the line, Blum would watch the umpire as Kalas tracked the ball and would use hand signals to tell him whether a ball was fair or foul. He’d put up two fingers if an ump ruled a ground-rule double or twirl his finger if a home run was called.
At road games, each broadcaster had their own unique remote setup that took getting used to.
In Houston, there was a large main monitor that would show what the fans were seeing at home. A second monitor would have a split screen with the world feed, a shot of the bullpen or dugout and the crucial camera view from high atop home plate called the all-nine shot that would show everyone on the field at once. For a team so reliant on analytics and shifts like the Astros, that all-nine was huge for Blum.
But what happens when you’re a broadcast that has no home games and have little to no control over any cameras?
That was the challenge ESPN faced for its flagship Sunday night and weekday broadcasts. For play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian, who will also be calling Los Angeles Angels games this season for Bally Sports West as well as MLB Network duties, he had to learn so many things on the fly. That included the optimal place to sit in his chair at the network’s Bristol headquarters so as many monitors were within your line of sight as possible, as well as trying to call games without fully knowing what’s going on.
With a runner at 1st base and a ball hit into the gap, you’re just not sure if that runner is going to score when calling a game remotely and can’t see the play with your own eyes.
“So you’ve gotta wait until the program monitor gives you the exact look that you’re commenting on in real time,” Vasgersian said. “You don’t have any peripheral vision to pick up the third base coach to see if he’s waving him or not.”
The perfect example of that happened during last year’s incredible World Series Game 4 between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, when chaos ensued. Down 7-6 in the 9th inning with two on and two out, the Rays’ Brett Phillips dumped a single into center field that L.A.’s Mookie Betts bobbles. The tying run scores before Tampa’s Randy Arozarena famously stumbles and falls yet still scores the winning run after the ball got away from the catcher.
Joe Buck had trouble calling the action from the ballpark on Fox, and it was even less optimal for Vasgersian calling it remotely from New Jersey for MLB International.
“I knew that Arozarena had fallen only because our director got caught with a weird shot on a screen and I saw Arozarena fall in the back of a mistake shot that should’ve never made air,” Vasgersian said. “That play, and it happens in the biggest of circumstances, because it’s a game-winning play in the World Series, that’s the moment where it all kind of came to head.”
Though broadcasters like Vasgersian are well aware of all the circumstances, there are just things that are going to be inevitably missed by not being at the ballpark.
Challenges at home
It took a while to get used to seeing so much cardboard.
With fans unable to attend games last season, many ballparks, including Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, placed cardboard cutouts in seats to the viewers at home didn’t see a sea of empty chairs. But seeing the backs of these cutouts was just one of more than a few ways calling games at home was even more awkward than calling road telecasts for Lefebvre.
World feeds still provided tight shots for both teams, but the piped in crowd noise used to normalize the televised product worked better for him remotely than at home.
“It felt more believable listening to it from a distance than it was being at the stadium,” Lefebvre said. “And even though it was easier to call the play more accurately being in person, there was just this constant reminder that nobody was there.”
Then there were the challenges calling the biggest moments. Broadcasters are trained to lay out, or don’t say anything, after a big hit or strikeout to let viewers hear the roar of the crowd and the natural emotions take over. But there was no crowd noise, no fans erupting from their seats in pure joy. Guys like Lefebvre and Vasgersian had to fill those gaps when it wasn’t natural or instinctual for them to do so and find the right sound level to do that in.
“There’s a reason why in a tennis or golf match that the announcer isn’t screaming,” Lefebvre said, “because if there’s no sound, it just doesn’t sound very good.”
To Blum, not having fans in the stands at home eliminated the ability to create and feed off their energy and relay that story to its audience. It was extremely tough for him trying to create that. Thankfully as this season progresses, more fans are going to be allowed into ballparks to give broadcast teams that more natural feel as well. And no more cardboard cutouts.
The closed clubhouse
With big league games averaging over three hours in length, local MLB broadcasts have to fill nearly 500 hours of air time a year. They become so reliant on random conversations with players and coaches in the clubhouse or at batting practice to get anecdotes or interesting facts that brighten a telecast that not having that access last season was harder for baseball announcers than those in any other sport.
And nobody is expecting the closed clubhouse policy to change anytime soon.
“The Players Association is understandably and correctly doing everything they can to protect the players,” Vasgersian said. “And if that means restricting access to people that aren’t deemed necessary for competition, and that means media among others, then that’s the way it’s gonna be.”
For the ESPN national games, Vasgersian, analyst Alex Rodriguez, and reporter Buster Olney got great cooperation from team PR staffs who set up Zoom meetings and phone calls for players and coaches.
“But nothing takes the place of being in front of someone in person,” Vasgersian said.
He admits he had to work a little harder last season to get up-to-date and relevant information, establishing lines of communication with players and coaches while being accommodating to their hectic schedules. As a former player himself, Blum always loved to go to the clubhouse and get a sense of where a player’s mind is at and ask what they were working on.
“So much of the verbiage has changed since I retired, and I just try and keep up on that so I can communicate with them and also relay it to the fan at home,” Blum said. “Nothing will ever replace the ability to look at a guy in his eyes and ask him some of the more poignant questions that you feel would really help enhance your broadcast a little bit. It makes the broadcast that much better when you can bring some of that personality. I think that personality was what was missing last year in some of those broadcasts we did have.”
For Lefebvre and other broadcasters he spoke to over the course of last season, the lack of access was harder than any remote broadcasting aspect.
After two months, and Blum agreed with this to an extent, as information dried up because of the lack of conversations with players and coaches, the telecasts became too data and numbers driven rather than anecdote-driven. Media relations staffers did everything they could, but it couldn’t replace the real thing. When Blum or Lefebvre would notice a player’s changed batting stance or a different subtle nuance, he sometimes wouldn’t be able to talk to him over Zoom for three or four days.
“A lot of the information that we have today is available to you or anybody else,” Lefebvre said. “They can find just about everything on the internet. But it’s the conversations during batting practice with the hitting coach or the pitching coach that sets us apart.”
Changes for 2021
What’s gonna change for 2021? At first, not a whole lot.
ESPN is going to start the season broadcasting games from Bristol, which will require Vasgersian to fly across the country from Anaheim when calling Angels home games. When ESPN will go to ballparks in person will in part depend on the cities and their rules, restrictions, regulations and protocols. But Vasgersian isn’t expecting to be in-person at a national game until later this season.
“And it may not be anything other than games in the Northeast that right in our backyard,” he said.
And even if they do get to the ballpark in 2021, Vasgersian isn’t expecting clubhouse access. Calling games on site would still be preferable, but it would certainly take away from the experience. Sunday Night Baseball’s remote broadcasts improved by the week in 2020, he said, as did the MLB Network showcase games, and would as well in 2021.
“You learned what you can and can’t do based on the shots pretty early on in the game and work from there.”
As a father of four young kids, Lefebvre was happy to spend more time with his family at home, but he’s hopeful that Bally’s could have announce teams travel in the second half of the season.
“Hopefully the 60 games last year was a process to learn how to deal with it and maybe enhance it a little bit,” Blum said, “so that we have more access to maybe a camera or two to get better angles.”
A post-pandemic reality?
It started with ESPN’s successful remote KBO broadcasts, with production teams and announcers working from thousands of miles away and putting out a legit baseball broadcast. Now there’s a concern among announcers that production teams and even announce teams not traveling on the road could become a permanent cost-cutting measure even after the world returns to normal after COVID.
For Sinclair-led Bally, travel for production teams could soon be reduced or eliminated because of how many local RSNs can be called upon to just handle broadcasts in games in those areas. This may have even been considered before the pandemic, but is certainly being more seriously considered now. For a lot of these local networks, the money saved could ensure that more games get on the air, which would ultimately benefit the fans.
It’s possible that broadcast crews from east or west coast teams don’t make that cross-country trip and just call a series or a road trip from a studio to cut down on costs. It already started during Spring Training, where Lefebvre only went down to Arizona for the final week and Blum didn’t travel to Florida at all.
“We’re gonna get to a point sooner rather than later where teams are putting their entire pallet of Spring Training games on TV and the announcers are calling them from a studio at home,” Vasgersian said. “A lot of us reading the tea leaves here, we understand that more of it may be coming after the season because of the massive cost savings.”
Vasgersian gave the example of a Cardinals-Brewers game, where Bally Sports owns both local networks.
“Why wouldn’t you just have one world feed of that game and then you have your home announcers doing their show for their own fan bases,” Vasgersian said, with announcers traveling without their production teams. “And if it means keeping all the games on the air, we just adjust our viewing habits and we the broadcasters adjust our workflow.”
Broadcasters showed it can work last season, but that doesn’t mean they’d be happy about the arrangement.
“The job of the play-by-play guy is to tell you factually what’s going on. My job is to tell you and to be able to entertain, tell stories and relay what’s happening on the field to the viewer at home,” Blum said. “And if we are not allowed access to be able to travel and show some of the personality of the players, that is a little bit of a disservice and kind of undermines exactly what we’re trying to do, which is bring this game to the living room of every fan that is watching.”
As fans get ready and excited for a new, full MLB season, we may never see a normal baseball broadcast that we took for granted before COVID hit ever again.
“To do it at the Major League level that the fans expect from their announcers over six months,” Lefebvre said, “to really be the conduit between the fans and the players over six months, we need to be there.”