As Major League baseball debated whether to play some kind of regular season this year, the Commissioner got in touch with me, asking my opinion. I hesitated. Though I had played Little League and high-school ball as a kid, and loved the sport, I hadn’t followed it very closely in recent years.
Good, he said. What we want is the views of people who know the game but have an open mind. We’d like your thoughts on players’ social-distancing.
I hesitantly agreed and, with a one-week deadline, gave the issue my undivided attention.
I considered how the positions of players on the field might be configured for acceptable distancing, but saw no way — fielders converging under a fly-ball; first-basemen holding runners close to the bag; second-basemen tagging stealing runners; the catcher dangerously sandwiched between the batter and the home-plate umpire.
In my view, these issues, in themselves, warranted a no-go recommendation. I submitted my report, got a nice thank-you, and heard nothing until the announcement of the season proved that my view had not prevailed.
In the interim, I had a completely unrelated, direct experience of virtual reality — a cabaret that a small group of us recorded at home, sent off to a technician to assemble, and broadcast for college classmates and friends. A sort-of minor-league imitation of the majors, it met with reasonable approval, which made me think: This could work for baseball!
I haven’t had time to work out all the details, but here’s a brief sketch that, with refinements, might do the trick:
The players would be video-recorded in real-game situations. For example, in an otherwise empty stadium, a pitcher pitches to a batter until there is a result — a hit, a walk, or a strikeout. A camera determines balls and strikes (after all, they do it now to second-guess the ump). There’s no catcher (someone eventually tosses the accumulated balls back to the pitcher).
Say the batter hits a hard line drive toward right field. Another camera records it, determines if the first- or second-baseman could have caught it, and records where it lands. Let’s say it would have gone to the right-fielder. In a separate cut, the camera records a ball (fired by an out-of-view pitching machine) that bounces at the precise spot and, with a right-fielder now in position, he fields it and throws it to the second-baseman, again recorded on-camera. And the guy who hit the ball really runs to a first base that has no first-baseman.
Basically, you’re piecing together, not a play-acted scenario, but a linked sequence of real situations where the pitcher really pitches, the batter really hits, the right-fielder really throws, and the second-baseman really catches the throw.
I’m not underestimating the complexity of figuring out, at each step, what the next camera shot should be, but it should proceed naturally. For example, if the second-baseman should drop the right fielder’s throw, or if it was a wild throw, the next sequence would proceed from that real circumstance. Maybe the following shot would be of the shortstop, backing up the second-baseman and making sure the runner stays on first. With time and experience, the wrinkles could be smoothed out.
Then, of course, there’s the question of atmosphere, but there’s plenty that’s already in the can that could be added: crowds at any of a thousand games; maybe archive pieces with Kate Smith singing the National Anthem, a fan sleeping, a kid snagging a foul-ball with his brand-new fielder’s mitt, outfielders trying to corral a wayward pigeon, ushers wrestling with a drunken fan, a streaker.
Once all the video is done, the shots would go the techies to assemble in an accurate sequence so that, for example — guy hits a triple and stays on third base until he scores, or gets picked off, or the inning ends with him still there.
Yes, it will be complicated, but, if a group of senior-citizens, aided by a younger singing/acting/tech whiz, can pull-off Mention My Name in Sheboygan, then putting together a virtual Major League baseball game shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
Now, the idea just needs the Commissioner’s go-ahead. I called him this morning. I’m still on hold. I know he’s busy, but I’m convinced that, once we talk, he’ll see that, even at this late date, mine is a better, safer option.