In a postseason transformed by return of fans, Astros and Red Sox ready to bring the noise

The MLB playoffs mark a 180-degree turn from the fanless, soulless, neutral-site postseason of 2020. And it’s a change everyone welcomes.

10/15/2021 10:26:00 PM

The MLB playoffs mark a 180-degree turn from the fanless, soulless, neutral-site postseason of 2020. And it’s a change everyone welcomes.

These MLB playoffs mark a 180-degree turn from the fanless, soulless, neutral-site postseason of 2020. And it’s a change everyone welcomes.

The setting was a fanless, neutral-site stadium, San Diego’s Petco Park, half a continent away from Houston. The only crowd noise was of the manufactured variety, piped in through the speakers. The humanlike cardboard cutouts behind home plate stayed in their seats and made not a peep, even as a jubilant Correa cheekily cupped his hand to his ear rounding third.

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As a baseball moment, it was divine — the only walk-off homer out of a record 53 games played last fall in a postseason unlike any before it. As a reminder of where we were as a society last fall, near the heights of a global pandemic that made it necessary to play baseball in a sensory-deprivation tank, it was painfully sad.

In the deciding clash of MLB’s titans, the Dodgers got the last word against the GiantsA similarly triumphant moment this weekend, as the Astros prepare to host the Boston Red Sox in Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS on Friday and Saturday at what is expected to be a jam-packed and raucous Minute Maid Park, would look, sound and feel vastly different.

It might look, sound and feel something like the walk-off homer Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez smashed in the 13th inning against Tampa Bay Rays reliever Luis Patiño to win Game 3 of the AL Division Series at Boston’s Fenway Park on Sunday night: the sellout crowd erupting, the home run ball engulfed by fans in the Green Monster seats, the entire stadium joining in for a rousing rendition of the Standells’ “Dirty Water” — Fenway’s traditional victory singalong.

AdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAs if anyone needed reminding, this postseason already has made clear how much was lost during 2020’s convoluted, made-for-TV postseason — when the majority of games were played without fans and the National League Championship Series, ALCS and World Series were held at neutral sites — and how much has been regained with stadiums returned to full capacity and home-field advantage again holding sway.

What is also clear: A crowd is not simply a cosmetic feature of postseason baseball that can be shrugged off or replicated with cardboard cutouts and fake noise. It is a living, breathing thing that is as essential to October baseball, as we have come to know it, as the bases and the umpires. The difference between the 2020 postseason and the 2021 version is almost literally like night and day.

In Atlanta and Milwaukee, a season without Hank Aaron leave a 'void'“This is what baseball is all about,” Astros Manager Dusty Baker said of the contrast. “Last year was great, but it wasn’t the same as previous years, because nobody was there. I mean, you know what you’re playing for, but it’s a little different in front of cutouts than it is in front of actual people. . . . It’s not just background noise. It’s actual noise and electricity in the building. And that’s why we play.”

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It could just be the imagination — or the juxtaposition with the sad, soulless atmospheres of a year ago — but the crowds this postseason, from coast to coast, have seemed louder, more joyous, more vibrant, more engaged than ever.AdvertisementStory continues below advertisement

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