The Red Sox are playing their first official game of the shortened 2020 season at Fenway Friday night, and it's going to look and sound a lot different without fans in the stands. But organist Josh Kantor will still be there to help bring the familiar Fenway ambiance to those watching the game from home. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Kantor about what it's like to be back at the park and what Sox fans can expect. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: So [are] you ready for the real thing?
Josh Kantor: I think so. I did two preseason games at Fenway earlier this week just to shake off some of the rust, get the timing back and work over the headset with my audio/video colleagues. I think our goal is for things to look and sound as normal as possible on the broadcasts, and it's a challenge, but it's nice to be over there just to be with my coworkers and to see baseball happening, even though it obviously is under very, very unusual circumstances.
Mathieu: I'd love to ask you about the logistics behind that in a minute. But I wonder, is everything where you left it?
Kantor: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, everything has been sort of scrubbed down, but it felt very familiar to sit at the bench; the muscle memory kind of kicked in. But there's no getting around that in some ways it's very, very different, but then at the same time there's a certain familiarity and predictability with it. And that can be sort of a helpful thing right now, I think.
Mathieu: No smell of hot dogs, no fans yelling — at least real fans. Is it weird? Is it surreal to be there?
Kantor: It is, yeah. There's no question. It's surreal. And I don't know over the course of the next several weeks to what extent I will get used to that, but I'm very used to a lot of crowd noise, a lot of activity, a lot of people, a lot of sights and sounds and smells, people coming up and talking to me, sending me some requests from the stands via Twitter and just a whole lot of activity — talking to camera operators and all sorts people. A lot of those elements are not there. So in a way, my role and the role of my department with audio/video is to do the same thing as we've done before, but also to make adjustments to compensate for what's missing. That's been an interesting kind of challenge. We've had a lot of discussions about it and we've had some run throughs, and I think we've gotten to a place where we can present something so for people watching or listening at home, they'll feel like they're taking in a baseball game.
Mathieu: The fake crowd noise has got to be one of the weirdest parts of all of this. Are you part of this? I'm curious about the choreography, because you're playing music and this is being timed with a broadcast, of course. Do you witness this happen live? Does the DJ play it?
Kantor: The crowd noise is sort of generated from a couple of different audio sources — a couple of different people operating a couple of different audio sources. Tuesday night was my first time experiencing that. I had been in discussions about it, but I'm on a headset with the people who are doing it. And so we're able to communicate [and] coordinate when to start, when to stop, how to play off each other, that kind of thing. But it is certainly something that until you've done it, you don't really know what it's going to be like. And having done it now for a couple of pre-season games, it certainly is strange, but the sound itself was more realistic than I thought it was going to be. So while there is this disconnect, this unusual thing where what you're seeing is not matching what you're hearing, the isolated hearing part felt pretty authentic. There were a couple of times where I had taken my eye off the field because I was prepping a song that I was going to play, and then I heard the crack of the bat, which was very authentic, and then this recorded roar of the crowd. I was like, "that sounds like the sound that you hear when there's a double off the wall." And I looked up and sure enough, there was a double off the wall. So there's some kind of illusion of authenticity there, and I hope that that will translate on the radio, television and web broadcasts. I don't know if it will, but I know that there are people working very hard to try to make it so that it does translate as well as possible.
Mathieu: If Josh Kantor is convinced in the booth with the organ, I'd say we're doing pretty well.
Kantor: Yeah, it felt good to me. Whatever skepticism I might have carried at that point kind of fell away.
Mathieu: You doing a seventh inning stretch?
Kantor: Yeah, I'm doing the seventh inning stretch. So at Fenway Park, that means playing "Take Me Out to The Ballgame" and there's no one to stand and sing and cheer along, which is peculiar. But it's a tradition, and we'll keep doing it and hopefully people might hear it on the broadcast and maybe appreciate getting to hear that. And of course, in the meantime, I've been doing my own seventh inning stretch at home every day, just playing livestream shows for people to tune in. That's been going — oh, my gosh — ever since March, and we're going to switch it now from a daily format to a weekly format since baseball is back. That was sort of the whole point from the beginning was like, we're doing this as a substitute — an inadequate substitute, but a substitute, nonetheless, for baseball. And now that people can watch baseball, we can get back to that. But I've enjoyed doing that so much that I am going to continue to do it on a weekly basis for the rest of the baseball season.
Mathieu: Well, you helped make a lot of people happy by doing it. I wonder, Josh, will you keep taking requests on Twitter like folks are sitting right there in the stands?
Kantor: Yeah, it's an interesting question. I guess I haven't really decided yet. But yeah, I would like to experiment with taking requests. I don't want to get inundated. The nice thing about doing it just in the stands is that there's a finite number of people there. But if there's a million people watching the game and a bunch of them are on Twitter, the numbers could get challenging. But I'm up for giving it a try and we'll see how it goes because I've always enjoyed that interactive component and that challenge of learning songs. So I think it's worth trying.