For the NLDS, the Atlanta Braves have been selling tickets to Truist Park. Of course, the game is not played live. Instead, it is shown on the big screen in center field while socially distanced fans watch and cheer at a Braves Watch Party. The differences between this and a real game are palpable, but so are the similarities. While the contest might be in a different state, the heart and soul of Braves baseball remains in Atlanta. Within the stadium, fans experience something radically different yet completely the same.
Normally, a baseball game proceeds as something of a foregone conclusion. The crowd is normally excitable as their team attempts to win. Players, regardless of ability, normally crowd the bullpen railing in anticipation of what will happen next. Television cameras, reflecting the celestial body present at the time, beam the action to screens all across the nation. The commentary team relays every last ounce of the event in vivid and descriptive detail. In short, baseball is an organized process built upon more than a century of foundation.
But 2020 has presented a challenge: COVID-19. This has thrown a proverbial monkey wrench into baseball’s machinery. Thus, teams have had to conjure methods to work within this new framework. For instance, tents have been set up in the bleachers so that players not actively participating in the game may stay and watch. The normally lively dugouts have become bastions of social distancing. “Keep 6 feet apart,” scream the decals sitting on the benches and flooring. Finally, players are not chewing and spitting as much, nor are they allowed to participate in high fives, hugs, or other contact based celebrations. Yes, baseball has had to invent ways to combat this problem. I was fortunate enough to participate in one of these inventions: a watch party.
A Braves Game in Masks
When fans attend a normal Braves game, they expect certain things. One of these things is to fight their way through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. The escalators within the park are typically teeming with people attempting to find their seats. On Wednesday, these same areas were devoid of life. My father and I were the only two people riding up towards the second deck. Granted, it was a half hour after the game began, but it was still eerie. I found myself poking my head around searching for other people. But, even with the lack of a large crowd, the atmosphere still felt as real as ever.
Upon arriving at our seats, I could note the social distancing efforts for the first time. People were sitting in varied distances across the lower bowl. Many families had taken to the special outfield seating, spreading blankets across the grass. Everyone was adhering to an extremely strict mask guideline. Nobody was allowed to remove their face covering unless they were eating or drinking.
The Lack of Familiarity
However, one rather prominent figure was not present: the traditional hot dog, peanut, or beer vendor. Normally, their constant noise becomes second nature to the fan as he enjoys the game. After all, they are simply there to sell things. But a hole was left that could not be refilled. It was rather disconcerting to sit down and watch a game without hearing them bark their wares. The seats felt somewhat hollow without their presence. Experiencing a game without them constantly shouting just did not seem right. It even felt odd to sing “buy me some peanuts and cracker jack” during the seventh inning stretch, because they weren’t there.
Another major difference was the lack of foul balls. Usually, one is consistently watching the field, keeping their eye out for wayward projectiles. But not on this day. Every single time the bat would crack, I would instinctively begin watching. A small dose of paranoia quickly set in as I waited for something to land in the seat beside me. But nothing ever did, and I would remind myself that the action was in Houston. At first, it was rather depressing. After all, the chance at a foul ball is one of the reasons someone attends a game. But, over time, one could get used to it and enjoy the center field broadcast.
The staff members also experienced differences, such as a constant masking. But they were even more excited than the fans were. One member even told me how thrilled she was to have people back at the park. From the security personnel to the cashiers, reinvigoration was the name of the game. They were back in their element, flipping burgers, cleaning tables, and conversing with guests. For them, it was as if the season were proceeding as usual. For an afternoon, they could return to doing what they do best: helping the fans.
So Different, Yet So Similar
However, even with all the differences, it felt like a playoff game. There was the same buzz as when thousands of fans pack the stadium. I could conjure up images of the 2018 playoffs when Ronald Acuña Jr. hit his historic grand slam. The seats were shaking, the crowd was so thunderous. I have never heard a noise that deafening. By comparison, the fans at Wednesday’s affair were small in number but very large in heart. The home run hit by Travis d’Arnaud, in particular, drew raucous cheering. It was a slice of two years ago held within a bubble created by those trying to defeat a disease. I could almost see d’Arnaud in front of me trotting around the bases with his hands held aloft in victory.
The field was not dressed with its normal white lines and perfectly manicured dirt. But it was still the same. The players were not performing dazzling plays in front of us. But it was still the same. Brian Snitker was not barking orders from the dugout, nor did Rick Kranitz make visits to the mound. But it was still the same. Things had not changed one iota from a regular game. Sure, people wore masks, distanced themselves, and washed their hands more frequently. But the heart of the game remained. The fans continued to cheer, jeer, and chant. They were still participating in the small games between innings. Timothy Miller even sang “God Bless America.” Even though everything was different, nothing had truly changed. It was still Atlanta Braves baseball.