The first thing you notice, watching major league baseball players compete in a conspicuously empty stadium, is the bright noise coming from the public address system. It’s starkly out of place, crowd noise without a crowd.

“Like an airplane, some of the guys said, or like someone left a fan on,” said Dustin Morse, the Twins’ media relations chief who relayed player reaction to game operations staff during a Wednesday intrasquad game.

Then Nelson Cruz steps up to the plate in the second inning and hits a ball deep toward the opposite field.

Suddenly, that ambient noise begins to rise, and one can make out individual voices — an analog for the familiar crowd anticipation when a member of the home team barrels up a ball.

Is it going out?

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When the ball hits the net on the right-field foul pole, the “crowd” erupts in celebration and the familiar “bomba siren” blares over the PA as Cruz, who has tied the score 1-1, rounds the bases, and darned if you don’t momentarily forget you’re in a stadium without a single fan in attendance.

That’s precisely the idea; not for fans tuning into the radio or television broadcasts, and certainly not for the relatively few people working in the ballpark.

“This,” Morse said, “is for the players.”

Baseball teams have position players choose their walk-up music when they approach the batter’s box, and play music tailored to the pitchers on the PA when they first approach the mound, but this will be the first time — and, with luck, the last — time major league parks tailor game operations entirely for their players.

And it’s going to take some time to get it right.

“I’m sure Game 1 will be a lot different than, say, Game 30,” Morse said.

Keeping players engaged emotionally, or perhaps more specifically fooling them into thinking they’re playing in front of fans, is just one of the many challenges facing teams as they prepare for the strangest season in MLB history, a 60-game campaign in which teams play interleague schedules in their regions in order to lessen the risk of playing during a pandemic.

Teams have had almost three weeks to get accustomed to protocols related to the spread of COVID-19, which as of Friday had killed more than 137,000 Americans and was spiking to record levels in large swaths of the country. Frequent temperature checks, social distancing at the park, limited staff and media — even quarantining a couple of players — have become (somewhat) normal.

Now it’s time for the game ops and broadcasters to get ready.

The Twins’ radio crew led by play-by-play man Cory Provus will broadcast Wednesday’s exhibition against the Cubs at Wrigley Field — from Target Field. Likewise, Dick Bremer and his revolving crew of analysts will work away games from Target Field starting Friday when the Twins open the season against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago.

So, it will be different for them, too; just not as different as it has been for Twins audio engineers Trevor Chick and Steve Peterson, who drew the responsibility of being the crowd this season.

Home run or fly ball?

Chick, 37, has been working for the Twins for 15 years. His game-day responsibilities include mixing audio for the ballpark, from Sue Nelson’s live organ playing to video sound files, and routing sound to the concourses, among others. This new gig has been a challenge, and he has prepped for it the best he can.

The Twins didn’t get the MLB-issued iPad containing the approved sound board for crowd noise until Tuesday at 10 a.m., a little more than a day before Chick, music director Tim Miller, director of in-game experience Steve Henschen and senior director of experience and innovation Chris Iles got their first rehearsal.

As Iles noted, it takes a small army to impersonate a crowd of as many as 38,000 fans.

Chick, who worked Wednesday’s scrimmage before Peterson got his first shot on Friday, had just enough time to take the iPad home and practice using video of the Twins’ 14-12 loss to the New York Yankees that involved five home runs and four lead changes over 10 innings on July 23, 2019.

The game was full of big hits and big outs, and every time a ball was put into play, the crowd perked up.

“I realized a lot of it is about the timing,” Chick said. “The anticipation is so important, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s that buildup of excitement. And when something finally does happen, it adds to the excitement.”

There also, of course, is the danger of getting too excited too early. No one feels good when they call a shot off the bat, only to see it stall innocuously in front of the warning track.

“To get that authenticity, to make it feel right, it did feel like you have to hesitate just a little bit to get the right call,” Chick said. “The nice thing about the software program is you can quickly fade out of that if I do have to reconfigure on the fly.”

The crowd noise was recorded at several major league parks and compiled for use in the the Sony PlayStation video game “MLB: The Show.” According to Iles, the Twins chose the sounds they liked the best and put them into three categories: ambient crowd noise, anticipation and varying levels of excitement or disappointment.

Inside each category are several options, the difference, say between a strikeout to start an inning and a strikeout with runners in scoring position.

In the video game, the sounds are triggered automatically by an algorithm according to game situations. Chick and Peterson have to do it all themselves, in real time.

“Doing the audio job in a normal game situation, I never had to pay this much attention to every single pitch and the outcome of every sequence,” Chick said. “I actually have more of an appreciation for the game of baseball in general.”

The crowd noise will help increase the verisimilitude for television views and radio listeners. Certainly, baseball fans are accustomed to seeing stadiums in various states of emptiness during a season.

“It will look less strange on TV, for sure,” said Tony Tortorici, FOX Sports North executive producer. “Because there will be baseball crowd noise piped in, you can kind of lose track that we’re in a pandemic because it will sound and look somewhat normal.”

Noise, please

Not so for the players looking for anything to make the in-game experience less strange. They provided a lot of feedback to the sound crew on Wednesday, and more on Friday.

What players definitely don’t want, Morse said, is to feel like everything they say might get picked up by a microphone. They also don’t want to feel like they’re playing in front of no one, which, of course, is the case — at least for now.

“Silence is definitely what we’re going to hope to avoid,” manager Rocco Baldelli said after Wednesday’s intrasquad game. “That’s when you really start observing and thinking really odd things. You’re not used to being on the ball field with a noiseless, quiet environment around you. That is the one thing we’re not going to see going forward.”

“It definitely felt like a real game,” he added, “and that does help.”

And will probably improve over the course of the season. Baseball is a game of detail and nuance, from pitch selection to where defenders set up in the field. Even common situations and outcomes, such as turning a double play or fouling out with a man on third, induce different reactions depending on the state of play: Is first place on the line, is it a blowout, a mid-September game with no impact on the standings?

“The ultimate success,” Chick said, “will be in the subtleties.”

In the end, it’s about how the players respond. Friday was the Twins’ second experience with the crowd noise and standard game-day video and audio and, again, it was a scrimmage. Ideally, a regular-season game against a real opponent will make it less important.

As Baldelli said Wednesday, “It’s pretty obvious that when you sit in different dugouts and you put on different jerseys, guys start competing, and that’s what these guys like to do. They’re athletes, they’re good athletes, they like to compete, and that’s what we saw tonight.”

The best home run reaction on Wednesday was for Ryan Jeffers’ game-tying, solo shot in the seventh and final inning (the game ended in a 3-3 tie), but Cruz’s was pretty good — certainly better than the leadoff home run from Max Kepler, which took everyone by surprise.

Cruz, naturally, didn’t notice — at least initially.

“As a hitter, especially when you hit the ball, you’re not thinking about anything else,” said Cruz, who hit a team-high 41 home runs last season. “In that situation, you’re just hoping the ball drops. In that case, it went as a home run.

“But after, when you start running and go to second base, third base, yeah, you hear everything.”