Tigers not thrilled about playing without fans, but it beats the alternative

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — At this point, we don’t really care what it looks or feels like, right? We just want the game back. Even if we can’t go to the ballpark, sit in the sun, enjoy a hot dog and a beer, just to be able to watch a game on television, not a replay of an old classic, an actual ball game in real time in 2020 — man, that sounds so nice.

“I think it would really help,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said this week on a Tigers Town Hall video chat. “It’s not a cure by any means, but I think it’s going to give people something to do. It’s what baseball does very well, gives you a passion, somewhere you can turn to clear your mind and just watch a ballgame and root for your team.

"It’s what baseball does very well, gives you a passion, somewhere you can turn to clear your mind and just watch a ballgame and root for your team," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire says.

“Baseball has a special place in the hearts of all of us. That’s one of the biggest things — just get us back to where we can take our minds off the things that are going on in the world, all the hardships people are having, and just watch a ball game.”

The Tigers had a full-team meeting via Zoom earlier this week and there is at least some hope of commencing a second spring training in Lakeland sometime in June. That, of course, depends on the continued dissipation of the coronavirus, which is anything but guaranteed.

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It’s also dependent on Major League Baseball and the players’ association coming to terms on health protocols and player salaries — the latter being most problematic right now.

“My concerns are all with the players association and MLB negotiating,” Gardenhire said. “It’s an impasse, a little bit of a war, and I’m really nervous about that.”

Still, our thirst for the game — any game, really, is real.

“We all know what sports means to the world,” Tigers’ Hall of Famer Alan Trammell said. “Whether it’s NASCAR that just started, or golf or baseball — fans would love to be able to watch a ball game. I am sure by now everyone is tired of watching the reruns.”

Tired, too, of watching baseball from Korea, though it has provided a preview of what the game might look like when it returns here: Quiet empty stadiums, cheerleaders leading cheers for empty seats and cardboard cutouts.

"We love our fans and feed off them,” Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd says.

“It’ll be different, there’s no way of shaking that,” Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd said. “I think the last time I played without fans was probably high school, when we just had our parents in the stands.”

We know what it’ll be like for us, as true fans of the game. It’s stinks. Most of us would rather have the option of watching the game in person if we could. But right now, after being cooped up in our homes for going on three months with no access to live sports — we will gladly accept an 82-game televised season.

But what about the players? Cynically, you could argue the Tigers might be more accustomed to playing in an empty stadium than most teams. It will probably seem to them like, well, the last three Septembers at Comerica Park.

“I’ve been thinking about that a lot, to be honest,” said pitcher Daniel Norris. “It’ll for sure be weird. But at this point, we just want to play. We understand that fans will be there watching on TV and that’s all good.

“But it’ll be weird not to have that energy in the ballpark.”

Boyd said he does long for those warm summer nights at Comerica Park when the crowd, even if it was less than a full house, would still create an electric atmosphere.

“We love our fans and feed off them,” Boyd said. “But that being said, it’ll just be great to get the game back. Normal is changing, right? Just the fact that we’re going have games going on and they’ll be on TV is really exciting.”

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer has been pitching on empty fields for three months now, as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. He’s throwing regular bullpens now at the Tigers' training facility in Lakeland.

On a typical session, there are only him, his catcher, Tigers head athletic trainer Doug Teter and a few other medical personnel.

“It affects everybody,” he said of playing without fans. “Pitchers will tell you, everybody will tell you, you have to tune out the crowd. You can’t listen to the guy in the second row saying you’re a bum. You’ve got to tune that out.

"It will probably feel like a spring training inter-squad type thing for a while," says Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris about the prospect of playing without fans.

“But the reality is, it’s hard to. You want to have tunnel vision out there. You want to focus just on the catcher and the hitter. But without the crowd and fans cheering, people starting the wave in the seventh or eighth inning, it’s something that will be missed. Hopefully one day we can get back to that.”

There have been reports out of Korea that pitchers’ velocity is down league-wide and several players have suggested it may be due to a decline in adrenaline caused by playing in such a quiet and sterile environment.  

Boyd doesn’t buy that.

“I think if that does affect you then you need to re-learn what you are being driven by,” he said. “My game shouldn’t change whether the stadium is full of people or empty. It shouldn’t change if I’m playing in Detroit, Toledo, Korea or on the moon.

“My game should be the same no matter what and not dictated by the environment.”

Norris, who has had to learn to channel his adrenaline on the mound, agrees.  

“A lot of my adrenaline comes from within,” he said. “Fans definitely help, but I kind of block out that stuff. I will be OK with that. It will probably feel like a spring training inter-squad type thing for a while.

“But, again, at this point, we just want to play baseball.”



Twitter: @cmccosky