Pandemic will create a whole new way to broadcast Dodgers games

Joe Davis with Orel Hershiser on 2017 Opening Day. (Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers)

On Sunday, for the first time in seven years, the majority of households in Southern California will be able to catch a Dodgers game on television that isn't broadcast nationally. The widespread availability comes after Spectrum finally reached an agreement to carry SportsNet LA, the Dodgers’ television home, on AT&T video platforms, including DirecTV, at the beginning of April.

It’s a breakthrough fans clamored to witness, and one that arrived at an opportune time. The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down most other entertainment options and will prevent fans from attending games at Dodger Stadium for at least the beginning of the 2020 season. Television and radio broadcasts will be fans’ only access until they can attend games.

The circumstances will make SportsNet LA’s Dodgers broadcasts must-watch events. They will also make broadcasting games on television this season more difficult than any previous year. Sunday’s exhibition between the Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium will be the first.

“It’ll definitely change the way we do things,” SportsNet LA producer Mike Levy said.

The atmosphere will ring hollow with artificial noise infused to offset fans’ absence. Access to players for interviews will be limited to Zoom calls. And, to at least begin the season, television broadcasters aren’t allowed to travel to road games without approval, according to Major League Baseball’s operations manual. While MLB will allow radio broadcasters to travel, the Dodgers have decided to keep all broadcasters off the road.

Play-by-play announcer Joe Davis and color analyst Orel Hershiser will work road games from the same spot they’ll call home games — in their booth at Dodger Stadium. They’ll call the games from monitors off one universal feed that the crew won’t manage, giving them little control over where to steer the broadcast.

Davis said he’s done previously played football games off monitors but has never called a live game remotely. The biggest challenge, he believes, will be judging the ball off of the bat. He said play-by-play announcers are taught to track batted balls by tracking fielders. He’ll be at the mercy of the camera angle this season.

“How can you call it with conviction?” Davis said. “I don't know.”

Without fans to provide organic noise, Davis said he and Hershiser will have to change their formula, reducing their periods of silence in big moments without fans present to provide organic noise.

“There's going to be crowd noise pumped in but it's not going to be the same,” Davis said. “I don't think there's any way for anybody to truly appreciate how weird it's going to be.”

Sideline reporter Alanna Rizzo also won’t travel with the team. She will be based in a mini studio in a suite down the hall from Davis' and Hershiser’s booth. She’ll have clearance to roam the ballpark a bit during home games but won’t sit down near the dugout as in previous years.

“I think the biggest thing is it’s just so impersonal now,” Rizzo said. “The relationship building and personality and reading body language and tone and voice and everything is out the equation now because we’re all interviewing through a computer screen. And I think that really takes out the personal element of being a reporter.”

Dodgers broadcaster Alanna Rizzo is shown at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 8, 2017.
Like Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser, Dodgers reporter Alanna Rizzo won't travel with the team. She will be based in a mini studio in a suite down the hall from Davis and Hershiser's booth. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

It will be a trial by error those involved believe will improve with repetitions and creativity. The Dodgers and other clubs hope to experiment to enhance broadcasts, with different camera angles and miking players among the ideas on the table. For now, just getting back to the ballpark to provide its larger audience baseball games will be enough.

“All those things that we need and that we want, anytime I get stressed out about it, I just think to myself, ‘It's better than nothing,’ ” Davis said. “It's better than what we've been doing for the last four months sitting here wishing we had baseball.”

Short hops

The Dodgers optioned right-hander Tony Gonsolin on Saturday. Gonsolin reported late to training camp for undisclosed reasons. … Right-hander Walker Buehler is scheduled to throw three innings against Dodgers hitters Wednesday. Buehler retired the seven batters he faced in his only scrimmage appearance Friday. … Right-hander Mitch White is scheduled to start Sunday against the Diamondbacks.