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Updated: July 23, 2020

Meet ESPN's Buster Olney, the guy calling a baseball game in an empty stadium during a pandemic

Major League Baseball returns Thursday night as the Washington Nationals take on the New York Yankees on ESPN. But this isn't your typical match up. For one thing, Nationals Park's 41,546 seats will be empty.

But there will be a spectator — Buster Olney. ESPN's senior MLB Insider will be the network's only commentator at the Opening Day game on Thursday.

The veteran "Sunday Night Baseball" reporter will have to call and report on a baseball game without fans during a pandemic. Olney spoke with CNN Business earlier this week about the return of baseball and how different his job may be Thursday night.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You've covered baseball for decades. Have you ever seen anything like this?

No. The most comparable situation, and it isn't really comparable, was when I covered the Yankees after 9/11 for The New York Times, but this is just so different. After 9/11, the Yankees games were sort of this isolated three hour distraction every night for everybody in the country.

In this case, you can't separate the national trauma. They're interwoven, because every day we hear about a player who tests positive, players who may not be available, players who might opt out. And it's going to make baseball in 2020 look so different, because there are not going to be any fans in the stands.

What will it be like to call an opening day in a stadium with no fans during a pandemic?

It is going to be just mind boggling. Because, you'll have some players wearing a mask during the course of the game. You'll see the dugouts and the way they're structured and players staying away from each other.

A lot of our conversation during the course of the broadcast in that first game is going to be how different it looks and how different it feels.

For the last nine years, when a game ended, I'd go onto the field and I interview the hero of the game and give them a couple of questions and I'm right there. I don't even know if I'm going to get within 200 feet of the players. And if they told me that I couldn't, I get it. I haven't even gotten my marching orders in terms of how I'm supposed to be doing my job.

You'll be the only ESPN commentator in the stadium on Thursday night as the rest of the crew — Alex Rodriguez and Matt Vasgersian — will be remote. What will be your biggest challenge?

I can't give you a great answer to that question because I don't know what I'm allowed to do. All I know is I'm going to be there. I don't know where I'm going to be. And I'll be honest with you, I haven't asked because I felt like that whatever I was told, there was a good chance it was going to change.

So I know that probably further down the list of priorities, is trying to decide where I'm going to be standing during the course of the game. I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere along the outfield concourse, where you're moving around a little bit. My feeling is that I can certainly contribute to conversations about the Yankees and how good they look, and we can talk about the Nationals and [pitcher] Max Scherzer's workouts. But I suspect that I'll be used a lot for my eyes and what I see during the course of that game. And the interactions between people and describe how different is to be at a ball game, where there's no one attending.

Much of your job as the on field reporter is to get information that requires you to get up close and personal with those on the field. You can't do that now. How do you talk to managers and staff from six feet away?

You're doing a lot of prep work on the phone. What I'm absolutely going to miss, and I'm already wistful about it, is before every game, while batting practice is taking place, you can talk to 10, 15, 20 different people on the field. Whether it's to say hi or to ask [Dodgers first baseman] Cody Bellinger about a change he's made in his mechanics, or a manager gives you an off-the-record injury update on some player — that type of conversation. That's just not going to be available.

In the last week... I've made a lot of calls to staffers and say, "hey, tell me about this" or "tell me about that," or "give me some background on that." Doing a lot of phone preparation going into games is something we would normally do, but this year that's pretty much what you're going to rely on. That, and communication with players through texts, that sort of thing.

Do you think it's safe for baseball to return? Not only for the players themselves, but for yourself, your colleagues, camera people and others who have to report on it?

I feel safe. I didn't hesitate at all when we talked about doing this. I do think that baseball is rolling the dice to some degree. From what I hear at the team level, a lot of people who were skeptical that they would get this far when they started this summer camp are now saying, "You know what? The players are doing a good job. The staffers are doing a good job. People are honoring the health and safety protocol." And there's a fingers-crossed element to it. But I think everybody understands that the whole conversation could change if a player, a staffer, gets really sick or God forbid worse.

I mean, let's face it, it's going to be viewed through the prism of the result. If you get through this time and they play the World Series, there will be well-earned golf claps for all the players and staffers who worked together to make this happen.

And on the other hand, if you wind up having some tragedy happen, people are going to be naturally asking the question, "Should we have done this?" I think, it's just the simple fact of where we are.

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