Covering the Braves’ postseason run in a bubble

10/8/20 - Houston - Cutout fans in the stands ahead Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves Thursday, Oct 8, 2020, at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

ARLINGTON, Texas - Covering baseball during a pandemic is weird. Covering the postseason in a bubble has taken it to another degree.

Downtown Houston, where the Braves were stationed for their National League Division Series against the Marlins, unfortunately was a ghost town. Postseason road trips are typically a blast because of what you experience around a ballpark with the atmosphere, fans and general happenings. The past two Octobers, we visited Los Angeles and St. Louis, two great baseball regions oozing enthusiasm.

This time, you wouldn’t have noticed there were games going on. The mood was somber, like when you’d drive by Turner Field in December and feel that quiet eeriness.

I stayed in a hotel within walking distance of Minute Maid Park. The hotel always kept its doors locked – you had to wait outside for them to let you in. The lobby was rather dreary. Lights dimmed, everything was closed, there were more sanitation stations than people. It felt safe and the hotel did an excellent job considering the circumstances, but it was just another dose of the current reality.

Local businesses mostly were closed, some of which were shutdown permanently. As somebody who cherishes local dining, it was disheartening that the only walkable place to obtain a breakfast sandwich and coffee was another hotel’s Starbucks. If you’ve traveled since March - this was my first time in that span - you’ve probably experienced similar situations. There wasn’t a lot of liveliness around the area. The incoming Hurricane Delta could’ve influenced that. The weather, which grew darker and rainier as the series went on, wasn’t conducive for adventuring.

As for the “bubble” itself: Entering the stadium, there was the usual temperature check – we had those at Truist Park all season – and we had to submit all our information and sign off that we weren’t experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Masks were mandatory. We were given hand sanitizer and wipes before getting on the elevator. There were sanitation stations outside every door. I applaud MLB and the folks in Houston, because the safety precautions were well done.

I was in the auxiliary press box for writers, which was a customized area on the club level down the first-base line. Each writer had his or her own table, distanced from the adjacent reporters and separated by clear barriers. We ordered our food through a delivery app. You essentially had no reason to leave your table.

And really, having your own station and space is welcomed. I’m assuming most readers haven’t partaken in the press-box experience, but pre-pandemic it was the humanized version of being packed like sardines. MLB’s “bubble” isn’t nearly as tight as what the NBA assembled in Orlando - Houston, Arlington, Los Angeles and San Diego isn’t exactly cozy like the Disney complex - but it felt as secure as it could be under this format.

If you thought the game appeared weird on TV, it was probably twice as weird in person. For one, you couldn’t avoid the Astros' presence. The outfield cardboard cutouts were dressed in orange. There were Astros logos on the tarps and other equipment (insert an easy joke about trash cans). That wasn’t surprising, just a constant reminder of the weirdness.

The production tried to simulate the mood of home games. You might’ve noticed the home-town ads in the outfield, which was a nice touch. They included Truist, Delta and the University of Miami Health. The Braves were the home team for the first two games, so they had their walk-up and warm-up music and usual stadium sounds. The Marlins had that luxury for Game 3 (it didn’t help them much).

You could hear the players cheering during big moments – like Ronald Acuna’s leadoff homer in Game 1, which generated a LOUD bat crack – but you really see how much the crowd is missed during times like that. The families' cheering felt obnoxious at times because of the lack of other noise. There were louder cheers each time Acuna struck out in Game 2, a day after the latest Acuna-Marlins confrontation.

Following the Braves' Game 3 win, there was modest fanfare before they took a team photo and exited the field. It’s a shame fans couldn’t be there to see the Braves get over a hump we’ve discussed for years, but I’m sure you don’t care if they did it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston or Mars as long as they achieved it.

I’m somewhat numb to no fans and fake crowd noise after seeing it in Atlanta throughout the regular season, but it does hit you more when it’s the postseason. I was impressed with the players' energy, and you could still feel the tension of high-leverage moments, but fake noise doesn’t do the moments justice. We’ll all appreciate the day we’re past the current climate and back in full stadiums.

The AJC’s phenomenal photographer Curtis Compton and yours truly are in Arlington now, where the Cowboys will host the Giants on Sunday and the Braves and Dodgers will duel Monday night next door. Limited fans will be at both games. I suppose it’s a small step toward a semblance of normalcy – if you can get past the whole “Georgia team facing a California team in Texas” thing.

Maybe the Braves make the trip even more memorable. Forget the season’s criticism. Whoever wins this World Series will have overcome more than their share of roadblocks. And if the Braves get past the Dodgers, they’ll face the Rays or Astros right here. So whether they’re here for four games or 14, Arlington is the Braves' last stop in 2020.

It has been and will continue to be a unique experience. It’s an odd mix of exciting and sad. Kudos to MLB putting this together and, barring disaster, getting through a season. Let’s just hope nothing like this is necessary again.

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