Limited access to Reds players – and no interaction with the opponents' broadcasters and beat reporters – will make TV and radio games a different ball game during the pandemic.
No longer can the media interview players in the clubhouse before or after games, or hang out on the field during batting practice to chat with home and visiting players, coaches and broadcasters about the team's streaks and health.
During COVID-19, Major League Baseball prohibits the visiting teams' broadcasters to travel to road games. Reds broadcasters will call road games by watching a bank of TV monitors here in Cincinnati. Bengals broadcasters also probably will not travel to road games, says Bengals analyst Dave Lapham.
"I'll miss hearing stories about the (opposing) clubs. There are many times you may be in the hallway after eating in the press dining room and you'll ask how a player is going, or who might be nursing a sore elbow, or another kind of injury," says Jeff Brantley, who will broadcast the Reds-Tigers exhibition games with Tommy Thrall on WLW-AM starting 6:40 p.m. Tuesday July 21, and the regular season games starting 6:10 p.m. Friday, July 24.
"Sometimes a player is lethargic. He might be sick, have the flu or a stomach bug, but nobody wants you to know. Those are the things that don't show up in the (team) game notes. That's the kind of info you might not get now," Brantley says.
"Teams will be more protective of every little bit of information, because a little tidbit could be the difference in winning a game, and in a 60-game season, every win is huge."
Brantley has experience calling games from an "off-site" broadcast facility. He was ESPN's TV analyst for the first World Baseball Classic telecasts with Jon "Boog" Sciambi in 2006, the year before joining the Reds. (ESPN announcers are calling Korean baseball games by watching monitors in the U.S. this year.)
"It almost seemed like we were in a closet. There was nothing but a bunch of small (TV) monitors," Brantley says. "I think it came off pretty good. It was very conversational. It picked up the excitement of the game. It was baseball. And once you get into the game, you're just broadcasting baseball."
Reds TV play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman has only called games from a studio during off-air auditions for Fox Sports baseball analysts. On Monday, he'll check out the Fox Sports Ohio studio in downtown Cincinnati from which he will call Reds road games, starting with the Detroit Tigers series Friday, July 31.
Fox Sports Ohio will televise all 60 games, using seven cameras at Great American Ball Park. Brennaman's Opening Day telecast with analyst Chris Welsh also will be available to all Cincinnati TV viewers on WKRC-TV's simulcast. Jim Day will report from "inside the ballpark, but not on the field," says Kate Zelasko, FSO publicist.
Of all the camera angles on road games, Brennaman will rely most on the "high home" view of the entire field, so he can see all the fielders and runners when the ball is hit.
"The one key picture I need is what we can see with the naked eye from the broadcast booth showing the entire field. Every team is making available the high home picture when you can look down on everything, in front of us, to see the entire game," Brennaman says.
For example, when a batter hits with runners on base, the TV viewer sees a constant flow of quick camera angles – outfielders running to field a bouncing ball, the lead runner heading home, the outfielder's throw to the cut-off man, the trailing runner advancing around the bases. But Brennaman says he needs to see the entire field in case the fielder bobbles the ball or makes an errant throw, or a runner falls down, misses a base or ignores the third base coach's signs to score or stop.
Brantley, a former pitcher, will count on cameras providing close-ups of players' faces. "I have a tendency to look not at the guy at the plate, but I'm looking at the guy on the mound, and at someone in the dugout. That's what I relied on when I played – facial expressions and nervous ticks. They tell you a lot about the way a guy is feeling, his confidence, by the way he looks."
Brennaman praised Rob Butcher, Reds vice president for media relations, for providing daily live video chats with manager David Bell and players. He's been told that players will be available for brief video chats during batting practice to talk about plays from the previous day's games.
Brennaman, entering his 14th season with the Reds, has used his weekly "Behind The Mic" podcasts to learn more about the Reds' opponents – particularly American League Central Division teams – by interviewing broadcasters for the Twins, White Sox and Indians.
And What About Bengals Games?
If Lapham is calling Bengals road games from Cincinnati, the radio color analyst also will rely on the camera showing the entire field. It's called the "all 22" monitor because it shows the movement of the 11 players on defense, 11 players on offense, and the referees.
"It's tougher for color analyst because I watch everything but the football," says Lapham, who has done TV audition games from a studio monitor. "Cameras follow the ball, which is the play-by-play role. An analyst should describe why a play did or did not work by watching as much big-picture action as possible -- which eventually takes you to the ball -- but you see who won and lost matchups along the way that determined the success of the play. Not being on site will make that a challenge."
If he's not allowed to be in the stadium, Lapham will prepare for the game by phone calls, video chats and texts in addition to studying game films throughout the week.
Michael Watts, Bengals preseason TV play-by-play announcer, has lots of experience doing off-site "remote integration" (REMI), calling soccer games for ESPN, CBS Sports Network and the YES Network.
"In the case of the (United Soccer League) games I'm doing right now, I can see three additional camera angles. The most important for me is the 'tight follow' or the 'iso' (isolation) camera which closely follows the players most associated with a given play. That camera angle makes it much easier to see who has the ball when it is in play," Watts says.
"I have called international soccer matches where fans were barred for attending. At first, it's eerie. You can hear everything - the players, the coaches, the ball moving around," Watts says. "Some announcers tend to talk more to fill the space. I find myself personally fascinated by hearing the game, so I try to lay out strategically… It's after a big play that the lack of crowd noise really strikes you."
For Reds home games, Great American Ball Park announcer Joe Zerhusen will introduce each batter, as usual. Major League Baseball also has provided all 30 teams with a digital crowd noise database to play in ballparks during games.
Impact On Players
Brantley says the empty stands may impact players' energy levels: "The biggest issue is going to be the players playing in front of nobody. I think that's going to be tough the first two weeks. There is no doubt that players feed off the energy of the crowd. Even on the road you can have tremendous energy, if they're yelling at you. As a player, hundreds of times the fan energy helped me close the ball game."
Announcers also may be impacted by the lack of fans in the stands, Watts says.
"You have to bring your own energy… when you can't feel the electricity in the air," Watts says. "When you're really in tune with a game, you can feel a crowd. That's tough to replicate."
Butcher notes that the ban on TV/radio broadcasters traveling to road games is subject to change. "There is a chance announcers could (travel) late in the year, and/or for the playoffs," says Dave Armbruster, WLW-AM sports operation director and Reds Radio producer.
For now it’s a giant experiment.
"Who knows, this may be the future of sports, and sports broadcasting," Brennaman says.