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Sans fans, Mariners find home-field energy

@gregjohnsmlb
August 1, 2020

SEATTLE -- You’d think, with no fans in the stands, the silence would be deafening. But thanks to an innovative marketing department and youthful group of players, there actually felt like energy in T-Mobile Park on Friday night as the Mariners kicked off their home schedule with a 5-3 victory

SEATTLE -- You’d think, with no fans in the stands, the silence would be deafening. But thanks to an innovative marketing department and youthful group of players, there actually felt like energy in T-Mobile Park on Friday night as the Mariners kicked off their home schedule with a 5-3 victory over the A’s.

The Mariners have more than 8,000 cardboard cutout fans lining the seats through the entire lower bowl of the ballpark, including one row that features all nine members of the Mariners’ Hall of Fame. Those faux fans don’t make any noise, of course, but they do provide a visual backdrop for the players on the field.

The audio portion of the game comes from piped-in music and the usual stadium sound effects, along with taped crowd noise that rises and falls at appropriate times. Even public address announcer Tom Hutyler is working the games, providing his familiar sound track as players come to bat with their usual walk-up music.

Across MLB, the cardboard cutout revolution is real

Obviously, it’s not the same as having a stadium filled with fans, but the Mariners are adapting to the situation and providing their own support system for each other. During Friday’s game, four Mariners starting pitchers -- Justus Sheffield, Kendall Graveman, Justin Dunn and Marco Gonzales -- formed a vocal socially-distanced cheering section for Taijuan Walker as they sat in stands in their assigned seats behind the dugout.

Every time Walker finished off an inning with a strikeout or big out in his seven-inning gem, the four leaped to their feet, waving towels and roaring in approval.

“As much energy as we can get out of our dugout is great,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Saturday. “I thought it was great that the starters who were up above there were into it, cheering guys on. It’s fun, and that’s the way it should be.

“It’s 60 games, and if you can’t get fired up for 60 games, knowing this is a sprint, then shame on us. It was fun last night and hopefully that continues.”

It certainly helps that the Mariners have started out better than many expected with the youngest roster in the Majors. And that youth doesn’t hurt either when it comes to finding motivation amid the pandemic.

“We have guys with a lot to prove,” Servais said. “It’s a fun group and it’s starting to come together more every day. The atmosphere we have is almost like a high school or college team with all the young guys we have.”

Walker, pitching in Seattle for the first time since he was traded to the D-backs prior to the 2017 season, said he felt at home back on the T-Mobile Park mound. And, yes, he heard his buddies in the front row.

“We did a really good job with the fan noise and having the cutouts out there,” the 27-year-old right-hander said. “Walking off the field, you couldn’t tell [the difference]. The fan noise was so good, playing the music, it was loud and it was bumpin’. And I saw my fellow starters out there waving the flags. We did a really good job of keeping the energy the whole time.”

After a week in Houston and Anaheim, the Mariners indeed felt like they were back on familiar turf, despite the unusual circumstances.

“It’s definitely a little different out there,” Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager said. “There were a lot of faces in the stands, so that was cool. It was definitely different, but it was fun. It was nice being home.”

Servais credited the Mariners’ marketing and promotions staff for taking their efforts to the next level to create the best possible environment both for the players and fans watching on television.

“This was much different than the games on the road,” Servais said. “That’s a credit to our people here with the Mariners and the game production crew. Of course I’m biased, but the last two places we were in, we blew them out of the water with the atmosphere in the ballpark.

“The guys really appreciate it. I know that’s hard to get a feel for at home [on TV], but when you look up and see 8,000 cutouts, it’s pretty awesome. We have a way different feel than what it felt like on the road. We might have a home-field advantage.”

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.