Big moments just don't feel the same in empty ballparks

Watching the various wild card series the last few days, I couldn't help but have two thoughts: There were some really compelling, tense, memorable moments in almost every series; and I constantly had to remind myself just how compelling, tense and memorable those moments were because the scene at each ballpark was completely sterile with no fans in attendance.

It was tough enough to experience the 2020 regular season without fans, but this week really underscored just how noticeable it is in the postseason. Some of these moments deserved to play out in front of 40,000 fans, both the highs and the lows. And because they didn't, it just didn't feel as significant as it should have felt.

So much about this unprecedented season was strange, but the lack of fans was by far the strangest part of it. And it's what I'll remember most after covering the Nationals' disappointing 60-game campaign.

When you watch on TV, you can sometimes trick yourself into thinking it's normal. When done well, the artificial crowd noise sort of works, especially when the camera is zoomed in on the players and you can't see the swaths of thousands of empty blue or green seats.

Personally, I found this to be true when covering the Nationals' road games off the TV broadcast. When Daniel Hudson found himself in a ninth-inning jam in Atlanta, I felt like I was watching a big moment. (Though the subsequent reaction after he gave up a walk-off homer brought me back to reality. It didn't look or sound at all the way it normally would.)

But when covering home games in person, it was impossible to forget that the stands were empty. All you had to do was look at the field from the press box and it was all there in front of you.

Thumbnail image for Soto-Rounds-Second-White-WC-Sidebar.jpgIn person, the artificial crowd noise was obviously artificial. It was still better than no noise at all. But it was obviously coming out of the speakers and not emanating from the stands. And though public address announcer Jerome Hruska did his best at the sound board to make it seem realistic, it just wasn't possible. You couldn't get the instant crowd reaction to a line drive that landed just foul or a strike three called on the corner. It was slightly delayed, and always sterile.

Because of that, I often found myself watching a key moment in the eighth or ninth inning and having to remind myself: "Hey, this is the biggest at-bat of the game! This is important!" It was so odd, and probably not something you could ever fully appreciate without having experienced it firsthand.

Now we're seeing this play out in the postseason. The games that matter the most just don't feel as big as they are, because of the lack of fan reaction inside the park.

Imagine what Petco Park would've been like Thursday night as the Padres stormed back to take the lead over the Cardinals on homers by Fernando Tatis Jr. and Wil Myers.

Think about how tense everyone would've been at the Coliseum in Oakland as the A's tried to hang on to beat the White Sox and finally emerge victorious in a winner-take-all game.

Try to create a mental image of Progressive Field in Cleveland as the Yankees and Indians went back and forth during their epic Game 2 on Wednesday night, the exhaustion fans would've felt at the end of a 4-hour, 50-minute marathon.

Alas, this is the way it had to be in 2020. Maybe it'll get a little better when a limited number of fans are allowed to watch the National League Championship Series and World Series in Texas, but it still won't be what we're used to.

Thursday night marked the one-year anniversary of the Nationals' wild card win over the Brewers. As I've written before, I'll never forget the double roar that accompanied Juan Soto's three-run single in the bottom of the eighth. It was the loudest single roar in Nationals Park history, and it will probably retain that honor for a long time.

Imagine if that game and that moment happened in an empty ballpark. Yes, you still would've been thrilled by the result and would've found a way to celebrate on your own at home. But the moment never would've been etched into our memory banks the way it was, thanks to the crowd that was actually there that night.

As if we needed to be reminded again: Thank god the Nats won the World Series in 2019, not 2020.

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