A cheer for the people creating the cheers (and boos) in this unusual Phillies season

Jim Salisbury
·8 min read

A cheer for the people creating the cheers (and boos) in this unusual Phillies season originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

It's the first inning at Citizens Bank Park. The Washington Nationals are in town. Bryce Harper has just singled and is now taking his lead off first base. Pitcher Patrick Corbin picks over.

BOOOOO!

Harper dives back and dusts himself off.

Another pickoff attempt.

BOOOOO!

Harper dives back and dusts himself off.

He takes his lead. This time, there's no throw over and Harper is safe at second with a stolen base.

Cheers fill the air at Citizens Bank Park.

You look around and think, this place is empty, those fans in the stands are lifeless cardboard cutouts. Where's all this noise, all this live-and-die-with-the-home-team emotion coming from?

"The show must go on," Mark DiNardo said from his perch high above right field.

DiNardo, the Phillies director of broadcasting and video services, is sitting in a glass-enclosed room, probably 25 feet wide and 30 feet deep, high atop right field. He is surrounded by busy colleagues and dozens of consoles, keyboards and computer screens that tickle the senses with bright colors, pictures, videos and graphics that with a click of a mouse appear on the huge scoreboard in left field or on the ribbon panels that encircle the ballpark's second deck.

When Major League Baseball decided to plow through the pandemic and have a 60-game season, it realized that having fans in the stands would not be possible. But that didn't mean it wouldn't do everything possible to create the type of ballpark atmosphere that players, and those watching on television at home, are used to.

In Philadelphia, that means some boos, or as DiNardo calls them, "disgruntled reactions."

MLB, using the same technology as video game companies, created a soundtrack for teams to use in the ballpark during games. It includes the hum of the crowd that meanders through the game like a soothing, slow-moving river, and emotional reactions that swell like an unexpected rapid when a player makes a great catch or doubles home two runs with a shot off the wall.

Over the course of this season, DiNardo's creative crew has tweaked MLB's soundtrack and made some additions gleaned from previous television broadcasts. They've added the "Let's go, Phillies!" chant that is popular at the ballpark when a rally is starting to brew. They're still looking — or should we say listening for? — the perfect "Everybody hits!" call to augment the soundtrack. MLB's initial soundtrack did not include boos. But, you know, this is Philly, where authenticity means having the right kind of roll on a good Italian hoagie. The folks upstairs in the PhanaVision Control Room make a pretty darn good hoagie.

"The boos are from an actual game when a pitcher threw over to first base," video production manager Sean Rainey said. "We love hitting the button. We don't abuse it. We use it for normal throw overs. We won't direct it at a player or an umpire. But we love doing it."

Why go through all this?

Why have all the scoreboards in full display, the Liberty Bell clanging on home runs, the walk-up music pulsating, the public address man introducing players, the rhythmic handclapping during rallies?

"It's important because it adds a little sense of normalcy to the ballpark," Rainey said. "It gives the players the big-league experience they're accustomed to.

"That's been our biggest objective: Bring the normal game experience to the players and I think the people at home also benefit because it's what they're used to hearing when they watch the game."

"Yeah," added David Akers, manager of electronic display systems at the ballpark. "We're trying to create a normal game environment in abnormal times." 

All of this comes with many challenges unique to 2020.

In normal times, there would be more than 25 people bustling around the control room long before a game, during it, and after it. The regular crew includes many part-time, day-of-game employees who are not working during the pandemic this season. While a number of teams have laid off full-time staff during the pandemic, the Phillies have kept all of their full-timers on. Full-timers aren't necessarily doing their regular jobs, however. With no tickets to sell, folks from the ticket office are working on the grounds crew or security staff. 

During this season, the control room has been manned by a small staff of full-timers, including some from other departments who've had to learn on the fly.

"The job these folks have done," DiNardo said with marvel in his voice. "Their commitment to the job and each other and the Phillies has been incredible. They're very loyal, very aware of their situation and the fact that they have an ownership group that kept them employed, kept everybody employed for an entire season. We talk to our colleagues at other teams and that's not the case everywhere."

In addition to DiNardo, Rainey and Akers, the group making in-game magic in the control room includes Emily Rutzen, Mike Licisyn, Martin Otremsky, Val Bendas, Rich Rivera, Deanna Kelchner, Ari Krizek and Justin Reid.

Whether fans are in the ballpark or not, music is always the constant in the game-day experience.

Players want it during batting practice. They have their walk-up requests. Music is played all the time.

"Music sets a tone, it dictates energy," DiNardo said. "With no fans in the stands, it's all geared toward the players' likes. They like urban rhythm and blues, hip hop, salsa. Some country, but not as much as in previous years. One thing they don't like — oldies. NO OLDIES!"

Each player has his own walk-up music request. Some players have two. Harper has four of them.

Flower by Moby

Drunk on your Love by Brett Eldredge

No Words by Big Wild

R.I.C.O. by Meek Mil

"He wants them played in that order," DiNardo said. "If there's a fifth at-bat, start over."

DiNardo sits in front of a computer screen that has each player's walk-up music ready to go, just a key punch away. Under the title of each song is a notation: Clean. That means the song has been vetted and is safe for all ears. The show must go on, but it must be a family show.

Vetting the songs is a group effort and this season the control room has received a helping hand from Jon Joaquin. He usually runs the Phillies youth baseball program but this summer is pinch-hitting in the scoreboard room. Joaquin is a contemporary of the players so he knows all the songs and what they mean. He's also lent some of his personal collection to the in-game show.

Even though there are no fans in the stands, the Phillies are still doing their best to connect with them during the game. Kelchner runs the Zoom Phanatic dance with fans that is shown nightly on the scoreboard. One night on the last homestand, the zoom dance got a little crazy and her baby started kicking. A few days later, little Avery Jane was born.

From first pitch to last, the control room is a beehive of action and activity.

But one thing you'll never see ...

"There's never any complaining," DiNardo said. "These guys will be handed one challenge after another in the middle of a 13-game homestand and you know what they do — they stop, they laugh, they say, 'That's 2020 for you,' and they go about their business and they get it done."

The folks in the control room love their job.

But sometimes the job stings just a little bit.

Akers' days with the Phillies date back to Veterans Stadium. (He's not that David Akers, but he also runs the scoreboard for Eagles games at Lincoln Financial Field.) Earlier this season, the New York Yankees were the home team for a game against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Per MLB mandate, ballpark entertainment, displays and sound effects had to mimic Yankee Stadium as closely as possible. 

"The Yankees wanted a home game feel," Akers said. 

That meant Akers had to coordinate with his Yankees counterparts and secure the sound of the chimes that play after a Yankee home run. He had to be at the ready with the Yankees' famous anthem, "New York, New York" sung by Frank Sinatra.

"That hurt a little," DiNardo said.

It'll be the same way Friday when the Phillies "host" the Toronto Blue Jays in the first game of a doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park. The Phils have the Jays' color schemes ready to go for the scoreboard and the team's "OK Blue Jays," theme song ready to play during the seventh-inning stretch.

It's all in a day's work for the gang in the control room — and that day can begin as many as eight hours before first pitch. 

But time flies like a hard-hit double to the gap. Before you know it, all the prep work is done and Scott Palmer, pinch-hitting for the legendary Dan Baker, who'll be back next year, hopefully with everything back to normal, is announcing the starting lineups and it's time to play ball.

The show must go on in this most unusual season.

And it has — on the field and behind the scenes.