If a batted ball clears a fence but no one is there to see it, does it actually make a sound?
As television broadcasts of Major League Baseball preseason games have aired over the last week, that question has been answered.
At first, the thunderous, echoing crack reverberating off the empty seats in the friendly confines was satisfying — like the first mortar firework set off in your neighborhood for the Fourth of July. But we all have that neighbor who is still launching them two weeks later and the novelty has long since worn off.
And so it is with baseball — and sports in general — being played in the age of social distancing.
Maybe you were watching The Memorial on Sunday and watched as a drama-free tournament teetered on the edge of becoming at least somewhat intriguing.
Jon Rahm, who had led big throughout the day but faltered a bit early in his back nine, chipped in for an improbable birdie (that was later ruled a bogey after a two-shot penalty) to seemingly put the tournament on ice. And that unbelievable shot was met not by the roar of the crowd but by the sounds of silence, with Rahm’s own scream the only noise piercing through.
Anyone else check out the UFC 251 a couple of weeks back? It was a card as stacked as just about any in the organization’s history with the welterweight, featherweight and bantamweight titles all on the line.
And yet, watching along with three other people, at least half of us were asleep before the conclusion of the final bout.
Were you watching two Sundays ago as NASCAR rookie Cole Custer went four-wide on the high side, simultaneously passing Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex and Kevin Harvick, and sailed to the first win of his career in one of the best late-lap shootouts seen in the sport’s recent history?
Still felt like something was missing, right?
Somehow, even in auto racing, where roaring engines typically drown out crowd noise, things still aren’t the same. In the postrace, Custer should’ve been interviewed on-track in front of a grandstand full of roaring fans. Instead, the only cheers heard came from his pit crew as the members sprinted across the grass infield toward Custer’s parked car.
Heck, UFC President Dana White has gone as far as to secure a private Island near Abu Dhabi to hold events as far from fans as possible.
And look, the experts say that social distancing is the safest course of action. And who am I to argue, as much as I’d like to?
So, it’s understood that games, races, fights and golf tournaments without fans have to be the norm, at least for now. But reasoning doesn’t make the result suck any less.
Because for the most part, sports — the ones that are allowed to play at all — have been delivering, just not in an environment befitting the action. And an argument can even be made that competition free of spectators could be affecting results as well. Is Rahm as calm standing over that shot without hundreds of fans crammed around him like a mosh pit, the hushed buzz of anticipation blanketing the 16th green at Muirfield Village?
Maybe, maybe not. Rahm is a professional who has been in pressure-packed situations before.
But what about amateurs, say at the college and high school level and, say, in football?
As more and more states pull the plug on prep football this fall (California was the latest on Sunday), our hopes for a normal fall sports season, even in the relatively population-sparse Mountain State, seem to take another hit.
The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission hasn’t made that call yet — either to cancel fall sports or play them without fans — but taking in sports on TV over the last few weeks has made me think. It’s made me think about the possibility of those beloved chilly fall evenings with the Friday night lights illuminating only empty stands.
Imagine pivotal fourth-quarter possessions in the heat of the race for the playoffs met only by the hum of nighttime crickets and the screamed instructions of coaching staffs.
Imagine Milan Puskar Stadium without a “LET’S GO” chant echoing from one side and answered by a unified chorus of “MOUNTAINEERS” from the other.
Sweeps, swings and screens with no screams. Quiet conference clashes. Vacated venues.
Difficult to envision, right? Maybe not, if you’ve been paying attention to nationally televised sports lately.
Whether or not we play fan-free football on any level remains to be seen. It would certainly be surreal.
But little in the last five months hasn’t been.