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The Sounds of Silence at Nationals Park

Games in empty ballparks are something. What are the early reports on the experience of the 2020 MLB season?

Photo © and courtesy David Driver

WASHINGTON – You could hear the slow hum of the gigantic industrial fan down the first-base line from the Nationals’ dugout on Sunday.

When home-plate umpire Laz Diaz hollered strike two – as he did with Yan Gomes at the plate in the second inning – the noise vibrated up four floors to the press box that housed only about a dozen members at the print level.

And as Stephen Strasburg took his warmup tosses before the top of the third inning, the “pop” of Gomes’ catcher’s mitt reverberated around the Navy Yard complex on an 87-degree day in the nation’s capital.

In this most unusual of Major League seasons, the sounds of silence – or the sounds that one usually doesn’t hear – are prevalent at Nationals Park and other Major League venues this summer.

The “new normal” for players, coaches, and limited personal means noticing things that would not be possible with upwards of 35,000 fans in the stands during regular-season play.

So how do veteran big leaguers get motivated without the boos and cheers?

“That’s a good question. That is a really good question,” Washington pitcher Aníbal Sánchez said this weekend. “At some point, you pump up; at other times … you don’t feel the same way. I said it early: we have to make some kind of adjustments. We have to handle all of those situations. We have to play better to win. I am not saying the intensity is not there. We have to play better to win some games.”

Nationals lefty Sean Doolittle, a two-way player for the University of Virginia, admitted he relies on the positive vibes of fans. (Negative vibes, it appears, caused him to get off social media this weekend).

“I thrive very much on the atmosphere and the energy of the stadium when I’m pitching,” he told reporters last month. “I really, throughout my career, I’ve learned to kind of channel that energy — whether it’s the home fans cheering you or the other team’s fans trying to get in your head a little bit and create a distraction.”

On Sunday, a sun-splashed day was one of those summer afternoons in the DMV that would have drawn most likely a near-capacity crowd to Nationals Park.

The visiting Baltimore Orioles, circa 1954, would certainly have had a good turnout of orange and black-clad fans on hand as the visitors aimed for their first three-game sweep at Navy Yard in five years.

In the last of the fourth Sunday, Eric Thames hit a foul ball that landed a few rows back of home plate – and the kerplunk sound was easy to hear for anyone in the park. And so, too, were the walk-up songs of every Nationals’ hitter.

In the top of the fifth inning, as Strasburg labored on the mound, the rapid-fire warmup tosses of Nationals relievers Sam Freeman and Javy Guerra echoed across the field from the bullpen back of the right-field fence as the ball hit the glove of bullpen catchers.

In the last of the frame, the “Bang! Zoom!” home run call of announcer Charlie Slowes resonated through the field-level corridor and elevators after Nationals’ newcomer Starlin Castro went deep against the Birds.

Back of section 106 behind the left-field bleachers, it was easy to hear the public address announcer shout “Austin Hays” as the Baltimore outfielder came to the plate in the top of the sixth.

With dark clouds forming from the west, the crack of the bat vibrated as Hays lined out to Michael A. Taylor of the Nationals in center field.

Of course, no fans on hand means everything that happens on the field will be magnified – even more so in these days of the 24-7 news coverage.

That was certainly the case when the grounds crew at Nationals Park had trouble with the tarp as rain appeared suddenly Sunday in the top of the sixth with the home team trailing, 5-2.

Those missteps were caught by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) cameras and quickly posted on social media.

“If 2020 was a tarp,” wrote one Twitter follower.

“Nats grounds crew having themselves a day,” wrote another in a sarcastic tone.

For now, that is the least of the problems for the Nationals and their players – who are still adjusting to playing in empty stadiums.

“It’s something I struggle with in spring training every year because there isn’t that rush when you come out of the bullpen there, either,” noted Doolittle, who gave up two homers on Saturday to the Orioles. “You get that adrenaline rush and it’s all about how you use it.”