Here's how Fox Sports can do virtual baseball fans the right way

(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports Illustration)

A crowd at a baseball game is a living, breathing entity, sometimes engaged, sometimes restless, sometimes bored. You must feed the beast with action, music and video-board games, lest the beast decide to beat the traffic. 

But now, as baseball returns at long last, there’s no beast. No fans in the stands. Something essential is missing. A baseball game now is a song without a bass line, a meal without a plate. 

Leagues that have already returned have tried to patch over this absence with everything from cutouts in the stands to, er, inflatable dolls. But here comes Fox with a big announcement: for their Saturday games, they’ll have virtual fans cheering, booing, waving and … well, that’s pretty much it so far. But still! 

With a touch of a button, Fox Sports can fill stands, like so:

(Fox Sports)

(Yes, make the required Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins “best attendance ever!” jokes here. We’ll take all the humor we can get these days, no matter how lame.) 

It’s an elegant enough solution to the problem of aesthetics that comes with watching baseball in an empty ballpark. Shoot, let’s be honest, most of us only half-watch ballgames anyway — a Saturday afternoon baseball/couch nap is the best nap — so some ambient crowd noise and wide-pan shots will help sell the illusion. (Should Fox and baseball sell the illusion? More on that later.) 

But why stop with just fans in the stands? There’s no rule — not even an unwritten one — that you can’t fill a stadium with literally any virtual sprites imaginable. Heck, make the fans’ arrival at the start of every ballgame look like the end of Avengers: Endgame:

(Disney)

The only thing that’s limiting us here is imagination. So let’s cut loose. Fox Sports, we humbly offer up these ideas to liven up your broadcasts, free of charge. Just put my face in the front row of a Braves game. 

Dogs. This is non-negotiable. For at least one game this season, Fox must replace all human virtual fans with virtual dogs. Imagine the cacophony of howls that would come from this agglomeration of good boys and girls. 12/10, would recommend. 

Old Hall of Famers. This is a suggestion from Yahoo Sports’ baseball writer extraordinaire Mike Oz: re-creations of legendary ballplayers, watching their descendants roam their old stomping grounds. “Give me Jedi-ghost Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle hugging and high-fiving after an Aaron Judge walk-off,” Oz writes, and I concur. Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn critiquing Mike Trout! Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa watching Bryce Harper’s homers and smiling! Sandy Koufax and Greg Maddux pointing at Clayton Kershaw and laughing! The possibilities are endless! 

Costumes. Fox is already boasting of its ability to outfit the fans in the home team’s colors:

(Fox Sports)

That’s great, but why stop there? Have Christmas in September! Outfit everyone in Halloween gear in late October! When it’s ‘70s night, the stadium ought to look like Studio 54. Every day can be a Comic-Con cosplay event. 

In-game promotions. Look, if we’re going to be authentic, we want the home crowd to see some in-game promotions with some extra topspin. When in Washington, instead of watching “presidents” in giant-head costumes racing, why not have the actual Washington, Jefferson et. al. race? When in Atlanta, why not have The Freeze race Dale Earnhardt’s black No. 3? Instead of cheerleaders firing a cannon that shoots out hot dogs, why not have hot dogs firing a cannon that shoots out cheerleaders? Think BIG here, folks! 

Virtual fans acting like real fans. OK, sure, I get it, you want to have fans cheering and booing and doing the wave and all that. But when have you ever seen baseball fans acting in a completely coherent and rational fashion for nine innings? We need to see virtual fans doing the wave at the wrong time, getting into virtual fights, cussing little virtual cusses as virtual moms try to cover the virtual ears of virtual little kids. We want virtual ushers hauling virtual fans out of the expensive seats they’ve snuck into, virtual goofballs spilling virtual beer over the row in front of them. I want to see some virtual shirtless moron fall asleep in the bleachers and get himself a virtual second-degree sunburn. Authenticity! It’s within our reach! 

Aliens. Most cheap seats are already a wretched hive of scum and villainy, so why not go full Star Wars cantina? Put aliens, zombies, velociraptors and dwarves out there! Have a dragon and a kaiju looming out beyond the center field wall! Tradition? Pffft. We’re in the entertainment business now, friends. 

There’s a point to be made that bringing in virtual crowds — non-socially-distanced, non-mask-wearing crowds — runs the risk of normalizing this crucial moment in our history. That may be so, though I’d hope Americans aren’t taking their cues on the severity of the pandemic from baseball games. 

Still, speaking as someone who now reflexively cringes a bit every time I see people shaking hands or hugging in old TV shows, it’d be nice to get a version of the old normal back again. Nobody’s at risk in virtual stands. 

So let’s do it, Fox. This will be the strangest baseball season in history. Only right it ought to get weird in the stands, too.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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