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Dan Bickley

D-backs’ slow start as mystifying as empty Chase Field for home opener

Arizona Diamondbacks players and coaches, left, stand along with Los Angeles Dodgers players and coaches, right, prior to a the Diamondbacks' opening day baseball game at Chase Field Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Normalcy was never part of the bargain. But on a sweltering Thursday in downtown Phoenix, a sporting dystopia came to life:

Police SUVs idled in front of the stadium. Except there was no chaos to control or crowds to protect. They would’ve been better off guarding the Chase Field pool from the visiting Dodgers.

Inside, extravagant chalk logos adorned the field, the pomp-and-circumstance you expect at a team’s home opener. But on July 30 at 116 degrees for first pitch, it felt like a grotesque joke.

And when the public address announcer formally introduced both teams inside an empty stadium, without a hint of irony, as if he were speaking to a stadium full of invisible fans … well, you had to be there.

“And now, turn your attention to the third base line …”

There were two fundamental questions entering this truncated season: how would the revamped Diamondbacks fare as sprinters in a sport designed to reward distance runners? And how would the game-day presentation look and feel inside an empty Chase Field?

At the moment, it’s hard to be impressed with either.

The team has stumbled out of the starting blocks. The starting rotation has been pedestrian, the bullpen combustible, and the lineup is suspiciously short on power. Early in a 6-3 loss to the Dodgers, Kole Calhoun made a spectacular, all-out, diving catch in right field, the kind of play that would’ve electrified a full stadium.

At the very least, it should’ve catapulted starting pitcher Robbie Ray, who instead wasted the defensive gem by yielding a three-run home run to A.J. Pollock moments later.

The Dodgers struck early and seemed to lose interest. The Diamondbacks are now 2-5, in desperate need of jumper cables. They have less spirit than the Padres and less talent than the Dodgers. They have two home runs as a team, or one less than the Dodgers hit in the first two innings on Thursday.

Or maybe they’re just off to a slow start. But in a truncated season, where six games represents one-tenth of a team’s schedule, there is no margin for error. There is no time for slumps.

To be fair, we should thank MLB for their efforts, for attempting to provide professional sports inside a pandemic. But the optics remain unsettling and disorienting. And we are all learning how much fans and their manic passion matter in the grand scheme of things.

In our absence, you’ll find a fascinating collection of sights and sounds. To start the evening, Torey Lovullo and Dave Roberts played a game of fist-bump chicken at home plate. The D-backs manager seemed perfectly content to leave the gesture hanging with no actual human contact, only to have Roberts breach etiquette and reach into the breach, pressing his knuckles up against Lovullo’s.

After one of Ray’s strikeouts, Diamondbacks infielders mimicked throwing an imaginary ball around the horn.

When Max Muncy fouled out with the bases loaded, he unleashed an F-bomb that would’ve been inaudible under normal circumstances. Without fans in the stands, we are discovering that professional athletes occasionally have vulgarity issues.

Still, the biggest adjustment was the imported crowd noise. Sometimes it sounded legit. Sometimes it sounded ridiculous. It ebbed and flowed and attempted to match the moment. It served the necessary purpose of killing awful silence inside a cavernous stadium. But at times, it sounded creepy and weird, like whistling winds or highway traffic from the underpass.

It probably sounded louder on television. In person, it felt like athletes are now actors performing in front of a green screen, a sleight-of-hand to serve the television audience.

Weirder still: The team’s mascot, Baxter, patrolled the empty stadium, where his most notable purpose seemed to be scooping Dodger home run balls.

The Diamondbacks missed the boat by eschewing the concept of cardboard fans placed in empty seats, a feature that seems to lighten the mood inside empty ballparks, effectively spoofing the absurdity of baseball in a pandemic. The organization had a lot of time to think about this, and their in-game presentation is both sterile and underwhelming.

Same with the team on the field, and a season that’s getting very late very early.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier