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Let's Talk About Video Boards -- In Cincinnati And Chicago

BCB's Danny Rockett went to Cincinnati and didn't like what he saw, then came back to Wrigley Field and didn't like what he heard.

Danny Rockett

Imagine you are filthy rich and have a downtown Chicago apartment that has a magnificent view of Lake Michigan, but you also own the empty lot across the street. Say some company, I don't know, Procter and Gamble, offered you a few million dollars a year to build a giant television screen on your lot to show advertising, but your lake view would be blocked forever. Would you take the money?

Well, if your name is Cincinnati Reds the answer is: "Yes! Show me the money!"

As I sat in the upper deck of Great American Ballpark a couple of weeks ago, I immediately noticed the new right field video board blocking the formerly open view of the Ohio River and Kentucky on the other side of the banks. I asked a few fans sitting around me how long the board had been up as it certainly wasn't there the last time I was at GABP in April. Nobody around me knew the answer, at which point I'd say something like, "Well, it's kind of a shame to block a river view, wouldn't you say?", to which they'd shrug and say something like "meh."

The new video board was erected for the All-Star Game, and is 19 feet high and 31½ feet long and beams out 930 pixels per square foot. Majestic river boats gloriously disappear and reappear behind it throughout the ball game, as the screen shows pretty much exactly what is on the left-field board, except smaller and clearer. The old video board has only 250 pixels per square foot, which one reporter commented looks "as clear as a Rocky Mountain sky in summer" which is apparently a joke about its cloudiness. He also said of the new right field video board, "It'll probably feel as though Johnny Cueto's fastball is going to jump off the screen and hit you." I guess it might if Johnny Cueto hadn't been traded to the Royals this past week.

It's true, the new video board is much clearer, but you know what was even clearer? The view of the river. To my eyes and sensibilities, the Reds have taken the ballpark's river "money shot" and replaced it with ads for toilet paper, diapers, and razors, courtesy of P&G. It feels as short sighted as blocking your own lake view to make a couple million more dollars, when you already have enough cash to live five lifetimes. Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority with this opinion.

When I returned to Chicago just in time to enjoy a Cubs sweeping by the worst team in baseball, my outrage at the new video board was freshly stuck in my craw, so I told everyone that would listen about how the Reds had screwed up their stadium with a giant TV that blocked the river. However, the surprising answer from Cubs fans was, and I paraphrase, "Well, money, something something, money, business, baseball money, money business, money." To which I would reply, "But they blocked a river! A river that's been there since recorded time! Don't you see that as a problem?" Then they'd usually make a joke about the river being dirty, and probably full of the diapers the video board advertises anyway. Still others said, "Isn't that the river that caught on fire?" And I'd say, "That's Cleveland."

So let me preempt the inevitable criticism of my opinion and say, I've already heard it. Baseball is a business. And every business operates to make money. Fine. But, seeing how the Reds have destroyed the "money shot" of the ballpark also makes those upper deck seats far less valuable as a place to enjoy a ball game, just as your lake view apartment would be far less valuable if you elected to erect a video board in front of it. The decision to take a few million bucks from P&G instead of preserving a river view seems short sighted and well, kind of evil. My first thought was of that Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns blocks the sun and ended up getting shot by a baby.

I searched for outrage on this issue, but came up pretty short except for a Reds Instagram post of the first beams going up.

The first beam for the new right field videoboard is going up today. #Reds

A photo posted by Cincinnati Reds (@redsbaseball) on

I especially enjoy the fans ripping on other fans for enjoying watching boats on the river when they should be watching the ballgame. But yes, I get it, money baseball, business money, baseball business, money. Which brings me to the Cubs and their new video boards.

From what you might guess from what I've just written, you'd imagine I don't like the new Cubs video boards, but that's not entirely true. "The Big Board" (as I like to call it in reference to one of my favorite scenes in Dr. Strangelove) provides pertinent statistical information during the ballgame, without all the "clap your hands" and "make noise" nonsense that is ubiquitous at other ballparks. And even though I can get the same information by looking down at my own screen which I keep in my pocket, I've had a good time making fun of the opposing players' head shots, and occasionally our own players too! Jake Arrieta looks possessed. And my Twitter followers seem to get a kick out of me asking them to guess which Cubs hat the ball is under, resulting in this photoshopped picture of me, made by Alex Patt, asking fans to "Choose Wisely".

Monty Rockett

I especially enjoy the replays during challenges. I used to have to ask Twitter what the right call was, as most of them were watching the game at home. So, let me be clear. I am not criticizing the Cubs' decision to employ the use of modern video boards in order to provide today's fan with the information they expect at a ball game, while adding revenue to the Cubs coffers. All the other MLB teams get this money, and the Cubs should get this ad money too in order to compete. I did like the ballpark better before, but some evils are necessary in this business of baseball. And at this point, that ship has sailed and there's no use in living in the past.

But. And this is a big BUT. You cannot understand a single word of the in-between innings videos where Joe Maddon talks about his hometown, or the players revealing their favorite movie or best friend on the team, or any of the revenue generating advertising. Seriously, the sound is completely muffled and inaudible from just about every seat in the ballpark. And I've sat everywhere in Wrigley this year. It's a glaring oversight. And one I've wanted to write about for a while, but figured the Cubs would fix the problem. They haven't. And if I was an advertiser, I'd complain, if not pull my ads altogether until the sound is fixed.

As a sound engineer, it seems as though the speakers on the "Big Board" itself are the only speakers playing what's on the huge screen. Which, due to Wrigley Field not being built with acoustics in mind, has the sound bouncing around the ballpark until the listener feels as though they are inside a rubber ball. The PA announcements are infinitely clearer, and come through the speakers located throughout the seating bowl at Wrigley. If you want to hear the scoreboard more clearly, sit in the upper deck in left field, and don't sit downstairs under the upper deck's overhang. That is where the sound is worst. The PA announcements volume is also meted out unequally throughout the park. You get totally blasted with Andrew Belleson's booming PA announcer voice in right field to the point of pain. But behind home plate and in some box seats you can barely hear him. To put it frankly, the sound at Wrigley sucks, and is the worst of any ballpark I've visited, but I've been too afraid to be vocal about it because I don't care to hear most of what they have to say anyway.

Someone, and I volunteer to do this for free, needs to sit in every section of the ballpark while there are fans seated in the stands, and draw up a detailed report about the volume and clarity of the sound. Notes on speaker position would help too.  It's possible the speakers aren't good enough, the building not built for it, and/or they need to put the sound feed from "The Big Board" through the speakers in the big board.

The sound needs fixing, and I volunteer to help.

My other complaint, more petty complaint about the "Big Board" is that during the seventh-inning stretch, fans all watch the giant screen, which not only shows the guest conductor, but also other fans singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame". Never mind, that all around your physical person is the "real life" version of fans singing the stretch. But people's eyes are drawn to look at the largest moving thing around them, and the fans on the video board are much larger than your friend sitting next to you. So we all look at the board and sing now. I imagine it's a skill humans evolved when we were in danger of daily being stomped on by an angry mastodon we were trying to spear for food. The mastodon is now extinct because of it's delicious flavor, and currently, we are evolving to ignore advertising in Twitter feeds and ignore each other during the seventh-inning stretch. So for me, can we all just remember to look at each other instead of solely the "Big Board" during the stretch? It'll be like how we don't do "the wave."

Even more petty and "old man yells at cloud"-like, for another Simpsons reference,  is my feeling that the "Big Board" also diminishes the sunset over the left field corner unless you're actually in the left field corner like our fearless leader, Al Yellon who can see it over Waveland. Personally I enjoyed watching the sun set over the field from the right field corner with the open sky turning it's purples and oranges into dark blues and reds. You can still see the sunset from there, and it's still beautiful. But there's now "The Big Board" and its green glow in your field of vision along with the painted summer sky. But least it's not telling me how to clap and when to make noise. But even if it did, I wouldn't be able to understand a word of it anyway.

I'm not against screens. On the contrary! Just ask my girlfriend about how I ignore her for screens. I'm even looking at a screen right now and so are you! I'm just saying, if you're gonna put up a screen, make it audible, and don't block a river or a sunset.

But yes. I get it. Money baseball, business money, baseball business. I know may people will call me a bleeding heart hippie liberal communist for caring about the natural setting of a ballpark, but I'm more attempting to point out the intrinsic monetary value of a sunset or a river. As long as we've decided that money is the most important thing to our society, I propose that sunsets and rivers are worth cold hard cash too. Maybe not in the immediacy of advertising dollars on a "Big Board", but in the long term value of the whole asset. I know they were worth something to me, and I would gladly pay the Reds and extra dollar a ticket to take their new board down and restore the river view. As far as the "Big Board" at Wrigley? I've accepted it, but what I don't accept is getting stuck with a couple of huge screens that ruin the symmetrically balanced horizon, while blasting unintelligible loud muffles in my general direction.

With that, I leave you with a Cree Indian Prophecy I read on the bumper sticker of a Japanese car made in Mexico. "Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten."

Wrigley Sunset