With everything on pause in the sports world, it's been a particular challenge for baseball teams to keep their fans engaged with the sudden stop to spring training. The NHL and NBA had already played more than 80 percent of their season while the NFL is months away from kickoff anyway.
Baseball, of course, was deep into spring and only two weeks away from Opening Day when everyone was sent home. And while there's some wild scenarios floating around about bringing the games back, those figure to be many weeks away.
With so much idle time, how do you fill it? Old friend Jim Rosenhaus used a little ingenuity so Cleveland Indians fans could stay connected.
Rosenhaus, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer who has been on the Indians' broadcast team since 2007, is doing a daily video game simulation of the Tribe's season with MLB The Show 20. You can find it on the team's pages at Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube updated the day after each scheduled game. His 17-year-old son, Nathan, was playing the game one day recently when Rosenhaus got the idea.
"Once they shut things down, we're trying to do things to keep people connected to the team," Rosenhaus said by phone from Cleveland. "Nathan loves MLB The Show. He was playing it and I was like, 'Can we do a simulated season?' and he said it would be easy and then it just went from there.
"I was trying to think of a way where me and 'Hammy' (longtime Tribe play-by-play man Tom Hamilton) could call a game but that would be two hours. It would be hard to do it over the phone and you don't want to take up that much time on the social media sites. I asked Nathan to sim the game and pull highlights and off we went."
Rosenhaus, who called Bisons games from 1996-2006, works under Curtis Danburg, the Tribe's longtime senior director of communications and a former Bisons intern who supervises the broadcasts and social media teams. The go-ahead on the project was immediate and Rosenhaus said he and his son then did some test runs to figure out how the game does graphics to open and close the "broadcast". They then started the season with the March 26 opener in Progressive Field against Detroit.
"It's evolved every day from when we started," he said. "Nathan pulls the highlights and it's awesome. He'll get replays, different angles of things. He brings those to me and I voice it."
Rosenhaus then sends the highlights and voice track to Steve Asbury, one of the ballpark's scoreboard producers/animators. Asbury compiles the finished product and sends it off to the social media team to post on the Internet.
The simulated Indians entered the weekend with a 10-4 record and Rosenhaus insists he has stayed mostly true to this point without any tinkering. One item of full disclosure: Rosenhaus and his son made sure the season wasn't allowed to continue until the Tribe won on Opening Day.
"Gotta give people a happy start and more to look forward to," he said with a laugh.
After a couple missteps, the Indians posted a 7-3 win as Francisco Lindor went 3 for 3 and starter Shane Bieber struck out 12.
"The comments were great but then you started to hear people say, 'We want to hear Hammy,'" Rosenhaus said of Hamilton, who has been on the air in Cleveland since 1990. "If we weren't in a crisis where there wasn't social distancing, we absolutely could have done some live calls. But I got the station to send me some Hammy cuts. Now we have some home run calls and we have his signature when the game starts: 'We're under way at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario' (the ballpark's street intersection). I plug those in for home games and people really like it."
What other tweaks might be coming? Well, you can create your own players in the game. It sounds like the Indians might have some guests in the works.
"We've been toying with the idea of players," Rosenhaus said of the social media team. "I know somebody said, 'What if we slipped (Browns quarterback) Baker Mayfield in there someday or (Cavs forward) Kevin Love, somebody from another team in town?' We haven't gone there yet but we might spice it up someday. We'll see."
Rosenhaus was at the Tribe's complex in Goodyear, Ariz., when the season was stalled. This is the first time he's ever been home in spring training since Nathan and his second son Cole (8) were born.
"It's awful not having baseball but one of the benefits is the time with the boys and my wife," he said. "I never have that this time of year and it's been fun and really cool for us to do this together."
Players have a video league too
MLB and the Players Association announced a joint venture Friday to form The Show Players League. Thirty players have agreed to represent their clubs and play online to engage fans and raise funds for Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Canada.
Each player plays a round-robin format for 29 regular season, three-inning games. The top eight teams will advance to the postseason, which will culminate in a World Series. Fans can watch streams of games on Twitch and YouTube. Twitter accounts of the players, plus @MLB, @MLB_PLAYERS and @MLBTheShow will also have times and stream information.
Two former Bisons are among the participants. Toronto is represented by former Herd shortstop Bo Bichette and Baltimore's rep is former Buffalo outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. Play opened Friday and Texas slugger Joey Gallo got the early jump with a 4-0 record.
About that real season
First we had the wild everyone-in-the-Arizona-bubble scenario floated last week by ESPN that was roundly mocked. The lastest return-to-play trial balloon came Friday from USA Today, which reported that MLB is pondering total realignment for 2020 based on the locales of teams spring training homes.
If you train in the Arizona Cactus League, you'll play in a newly formed regular season Cactus League. Same for the Florida Grapefruit League. No interleague play. DH for everyone. League champions play for the World Series. All games at spring training stadiums, with potential use of domes in Phoenix, Miami and St. Petersburg.
The rumored realignment is based on adjacent spring training complexes. So the Yankees and Red Sox, for instance, would not be in the same division this year because they train roughly two hours apart in Florida with sites in Tampa and Fort Myers, respectively.
It would, however, create a juicy divisional rivalry of the Astros and Nationals, who met in the World Series last fall and share a complex in West Palm Beach. Many Arizona complexes are shared as well, with each team having their own clubhouse and training facilities.
The full alignment looks like this:
Grapefruit North: New York Yankees, Philadelphia, Toronto, Detroit, Pittsburgh.
Grapefruit South: Boston, Minnesota, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Baltimore.
Grapefruit East: Washington, Houston, New York Mets, St. Louis, Miami.
Cactus Northeast: Chicago Cubs, San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado, Oakland.
Cactus West: Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati, Cleveland.
Cactus Northwest: Milwaukee, San Diego, Seattle, Texas, Kansas City.
Reaction? Yes, it's goofy. And fans who have never been to spring training to see the logistics of how the camps are situated might have a hard time comprehending it. But it's hard to see a scenario where there would be all-over-the-country travel this summer whether ballparks have fans or are empty. This might be a good compromise to get games going and have a season.
It would really mitigate travel and help keep players in better condition to fight off injuries and virus concerns. Players in Korea are getting back to exhibition games now, with temperature checks upon their arrival to the ballpark. You wonder if that's going to become our new normal.
Bisons to honor Opening Day
There won't be baseball Friday as scheduled in Sahlen Field, when the Bisons were supposed to stage their home opener against Rochester. But the team will use its Twitter feed (@BuffaloBisons) and its website (Bisons.com) to have Opening Day ceremonies anyway while featuring the hashtag #OpeningDayatHome.
The team will make a stream of its 2019 home opener, an 8-3 win over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, available on the website and their Facebook page starting at 1 p.m. Social media will also feature video messages from players and ballpark fixtures, a special WCC Mascot Race, hot dog grilling tips from Sahlen’s Packing Co., scoreboard features, and real time commentary from the radio/TV crew of Pat Malacaro and Duke McGuire.