There was no buzz, no life and no excitement walking into Truist Park on Wednesday for the Braves’ home opener against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Under normal circumstances the ballpark and The Battery Atlanta would be overflowing with fans and their increasingly loud conversations and laughter. Vendors screaming “Cold beer, here!” The fragrant aromas of hot dogs and popcorn in the air. Children running around trying to get their picture with Braves mascot Blooper.
It was hard to imagine a Major League Baseball game being played without any of the usual sights, sounds and smells, but that’s what happened, and, at 7:10 p.m., the only fans who could watch the game in person seemed to be the 21 people hanging out on the various balconies at the Omni Hotel located behind the center-field fence.
“It was a little different opening day,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “I heard some people from the Omni, so that was nice, and I saw people up in the box, and Mr. Hank (Aaron) was here, so you have to show off for Mr. Hank.”
Freeman went 4-for-5 for the night with a home run, double and drove in three runs. When he hit his home run into the right-field stands, the sirens went off, the music blared and then — nothing. Without the fans, there was no carryover of momentum.
This doesn’t mean the Braves didn’t try to make the game as normal as possible for the players and the fans watching the game on television.
Major League Baseball sent each team recordings of crowd noise that would help replicate the normal sound inside the stadium.
It didn’t work very well. It was a reminder of what it was like back in the day when you would fall asleep watching TV and then wake up in the middle of the night to nothing but snow and the sound of static after that station went off the air.
The organization also tried to give the players the appearance of fans. There were 1,400 cutouts placed in the seats that wrapped around home plate from dugout to dugout. Among the cutouts included pictures of Walter Banks, the team’s longtime usher, and second baseman Ozzie Albies’ dog.
There was also a cutout for former team owner Bill Bartholomay, who brought the Braves to Atlanta in 1966, and passed away in March at the age of 91.
“I saw Mr. B out there,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I know he wouldn’t want to miss an opener, and now he’ll be here.”
Snitker also found his grandchildren among the “crowd,” and many of the other players found family members watching them intently, including Freeman’s son, Charlie.
“I heard (Charlie) was going to have a cutout, so when I came out to do drills with (coach Ron Washington), I found him, took a picture and sent it,” Freeman said. “He was laughing and having a great time. It’s a great gesture by the Braves to do that.”
For those few of us in attendance, there were a few advantages of not having crowd noise. It was nice to hear an enhanced crack of the bat, a 95 mph fastball smacking into the catcher’s glove, and the bang-bang outcome of a play at the plate.
But that just couldn’t make up for the sounds that weren’t there.
When Freeman doubled to right in the first inning, the stadium should have been rocking with anticipation as outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. circled the bases. When Acuña was thrown out at home, there should have been an auditory moan of disappointment. Instead, all that was heard was silence as the Rays walked off the field.
There were no reactions to strikeouts or good defensive plays, and Braves starting pitcher Mike Soroka walked to the dugout in complete silence after taking a quality start into the sixth inning.
Then there were sounds that shouldn’t have been there.
In that sixth inning, when Soroka threw a wild pitch, catcher Travis d’Arnaud bobbled the ball and then threw it down the left-field line. When the ball flew over Austin Riley’s head at third base and allowed the Rays to score, there was a moment when the piped-in crowd noise erupted with cheers.
Obviously, somebody hit a wrong button in the control booth and created a comical moment.
There were plenty of other things missing. No stepping on peanut shells and souvenir cups of Coca-Cola, no Tomahawk Chop, no out-of-town scoreboard and no center-field fountain.
Maybe the biggest thing missing was the excitement of a child when he would catch or pick up a foul ball. By the time the game was over, there had to have been 30 baseballs sitting alone under the seats just waiting to become somebody’s keepsake, yet there was nobody to search for them.
At the end of the game, those of us in the park may have actually found the best thing possible about a ballgame with no fans. I walked out of the press box as Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind” began to play. By the time he was singing the last note, I was mere steps from my car in the Delta Deck.
No fans and no crowd led to getting out of the parking lot in about 4 minutes. I was on the road in a hurry and heading back home, which, if you want to watch Major League Baseball this season, is the absolute best place to do it.