I covered lots of Chicago White Sox games in 2017 and 2018 as a freelancer for the Associated Press.
Then, last summer, I spent lots of time at Comerica Park covering the Detroit Tigers.
Those three seasons netted a combined record of 176-309 (a .362 winning percentage) for those teams.
Two things about all those games:
- I’m used to covering MLB games without many fans
- I usually haven’t been very excited to head to the ballpark for work these past few years
Sunday, I pinch-hit for the AP with a few differences this time. There would be even fewer fans now (none, actually), and I was actually excited to catch a game and check out what it’s like.
In addition to the empty seats, I found an intimate environment, in addition to a peek at what sports fans are going to continue to hear more about: sports betting.
Empty ballpark a little jarring, but not really
I’m going to be honest about some of those old games I covered: There were so few fans sometimes that they were pretty easy to forget about completely.
And truly, seeing empty stands on TV from the standard center field camera angle has been much more jarring to me than seeing an empty ballpark in person on Sunday.
In the press box, you obviously have a nice view of the field. There isn’t much of a reason to look at the crowd unless you’re going out of your way to do so.
And baseball writers get to games so early — media availability starts 3 1/2 hours before first pitch; hug your local baseball beat writer when this pandemic is over — that arriving at an empty stadium is nothing new.
Maybe a more interesting take would say that the game didn’t feel real, or the fans were missed immensely.
And, certainly, that’s true for the league’s revenue picture.
But from covering lots of bad baseball games over the past few summers, I was more ready than anyone for empty stadiums.
Some of the sights and sounds of baseball were missing
The Tigers have lost some of the hallmarks of the game-day experience over the years.
During their heyday about a decade ago, fans were chanted “Eat Em Up Tigers, Eat Em Up” by James Van Horn on their approach to the stadium, which became a local rallying cry. He died in 2013, one year after the team’s last World Series trip.
And up until last year, in front of the main Comerica Park entrance on Witherell Street and also by the parking garages on Montcalm, young musicians drummed the bottom of buckets to create the background noise for you walking into a game to catch Miguel Cabrera, still, or Justin Verlander before.
In the stadium, Charley Marcuse added to the Tigers soundtrack for many years. But the singing hot dog vendor was fired in 2013.
There’s an eerie silence nowadays at Comerica Park, though you often are treated to some of the more intimate sounds from the field.
Detroit’s Cameron Maybin was frustrated with some of the balls and strikes calls by home plate umpire and Grand Rapids native D.J. Reyburn during a fifth inning, inning-ending at-bat. After he grounded into a double play, he unleashed a loud F-bomb that the few dozen in attendance could hear clear as day.
He was ejected while walking toward the dugout. Everyone at the stadium knew why.
Protocols make reporter’s job tougher, but free up time
Sunday was a dream workday compared to the usual grind.
For one, pre-game availability was held on Zoom, so there was no reason to head early to the ballpark.
I rolled out of bed and logged on with Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire and Cleveland Indians boss Terry Francona. I then went for coffee, casually showered, got ready, and grabbed some carry-out before walking across the street.
Because there’s no media meal this year, it was good to help a local restaurant for my lunch during the game. Those places have been hurt hard without the stadium’s usual foot traffic at 81 home games.
Post-game interviews were also video conferences. So there’s no reason to rush to locker rooms for the hurry-up-and-wait routine after games while on deadline.
I could get used to this, though there is a downside. You get usually two players per team, whereas being in the locker room allows a chance to corner other guys with quick questions. There’s also no exclusive access for savvy reporters.
In addition, locker room access can help you build rapport with players. That’s essential for the daily beat guys but less important for helicopter reporters like me who are assigned games sparingly.
Sports gambling advertising hard to miss for Tigers fans
In addition to those obvious differences, the sports betting presence is unmistakable for MLB fans these days.
On TV, tribal casinos Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant and FireKeepers Casino in Battle Creek are ubiquitous. Those casinos have spent millions over the years to market across the state. With the advent of sports betting this year, that’s no different.
The biggest addition, though, is the Tigers partnership with PointsBet Sportsbook, the first official deal between a sportsbook and an MLB team.
The Australian company advertises on Tigers web content and is on the right-field wall, a visible placement for games.
There also will be branded in-stadium content as part of the PointsBet deal. PointsBet is also mentioned on radio broadcasts.
Less visible is the MotorCity Casino ad in deep left-center field. This year, that ad has been divided up between the casino and the facility’s new sportsbook, FanDuel Sportsbook.
MotorCity Casino is owned by Marian Ilitch, widow of former Tigers owner, Mike, and mother of the current owner, Christopher.
Even with no fans, the sports gambling marketing game has begun at Comerica Park.