The fabricated fans experienced conflicting emotions when Max Kepler led off Wednesday’s intrasquad game with a home run on Wednesday night.
The faux cheers as the ball settled into the right field seats indicated they were thrilled to see Kepler repeat his habit of lead-off homers, and a home-run siren went off as he jogged around the bases. But the pretend crowd was more subdued than a real one would be for a Kepler homer at Target Field, perhaps because of the disappointment of seeing new starting pitcher Kenta Maeda fall behind after facing one batter.
Or maybe the Twins’ game-operations staff is still getting used to the world of make-believe.
“We’re in the process of finding out what we’re dealing with,” said Chris Iles, Twins senior director who oversees the fans’ experience at Target Field. “Different moments of the game have a different intensity, and we’re trying to dial in on how to match the crowd noise with that intensity.”
Intensity is a little hard to come by in a game between teammates, but the Twins gave it a shot during an intrasquad game that ended in a 3-3 tie, the most ambitious attempt yet to replicate the oddball conditions that major league teams will face when the 2020 season opens next week.
Kepler also doubled in a run off Sergio Romo, while Nelson Cruz crushed a two-run blast to the opposite field off Devin Smeltzer. Minor league outfielder Lane Adams drove in former No. 1 pick Alex Kirilloff with an unearned run off closer Taylor Rogers, but catching prospect Ryan Jeffers tied the game again with a home run to left center off Tyler Clippard.
But the real star of the night was the public-address system, which buzzed nonstop with white noise that succeeded in sanding off the sharp silence of such a large and empty venue. Music clips, standard ballpark fare, were also employed to add a touch of normalcy to the proceedings, perhaps a little too aggressively. The scoreboards were employed as if to inform a weeknight crowd of the game stats, each player was introduced as he walked to the plate, and a couple of commercials aired between innings.
“Silence is definitely what we’re going to hope to avoid. That’s when you really start observing and thinking really odd things. You’re not used to be on the ballfields with a noiseless environment,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “All of the sounds and everything, it’s going. It’s definitely going to increase our intensity, and probably help the quality of the play itself.”
That’s the goal of the Twins and MLB, too. The league distributed iPads with the new fake-noise program to each of the 30 teams this week, and encouraged experimentation with the game atmosphere. The background buzz gets amped up to actual cheering for big hits, great defense or critical strikeouts.
For Iles, the goal is simple.
“Our intent is to build a home-field advantage,” he said. “We’re embracing this as 100 percent for the players in the ballpark. And the ambient noise is obviously going to be picked up on [TV and radio] broadcasts as well, which was a consideration on the MLB side. We’re excited and interested to hear what our players have to say about the experience.”
Some are skeptical, but most welcome anything that makes the experience more like a typical MLB game. “It might be a little cheesy at first, but guys will get used to it pretty quick,” relief pitcher Zack Littell said. “They play music and stuff during the live [batting practices] already. Everybody keeps asking if it’s going to be weird without fans, but for a lot of us, coming up in the minor leagues, we played in some places without fans.”
The system doesn’t have to cheer all the time, either.
“There are various reactions from the crowd, from approval, excitement, to displeasure, to — I don’t want to call it full-on jeering, but some stuff that is clearly meant to be directed toward the opposing team,” Iles said. MLB also intends to introduce an application before Opening Day that will allow fans at home to indicate their “cheers” electronically, which the game operations crew — Sam Henchen, director of gameday experience for the Twins, is in charge, along with music director Tim Miller — can reflect in the ballpark noise level.
The Twins are working to develop other familiar touches, too. The first-pitch ceremony will be done virtually at another location, or taped for use while the team isn’t in town. “The Star-Spangled Banner” will be performed before every game, again by a taped performance.
“We can’t match the atmosphere of a sellout crowd. This is a distant second, but it’s still something,” Iles said. “And it’ll be even better when there’s an actual opponent in the ballpark.”