Across the country, signs of pre-pandemic life are returning. Businesses resuming normal operations, people socializing in public and MLB fans returning to ballparks are all signals that some semblance of normal is returning.
Indeed, after a season of limited attendance and Covid-19 concerns and cancelations, professional baseball is aiming for a more normal 2021.
How have these teams adjusted to the challenges of hosting fans amidst a waning but still prevalent pandemic? How do fans feel about the changes? Here’s a roundup of local reporting that addresses those questions.
Heightened health protocols removed or altered some treasured fixtures of a day at the ballpark. First pitches, anthem singers and mascot hijinks were moved from the field to the concourse or took the form of pre-recorded videos, per Michael J. Billoni of Niagara Frontier Publications. Not all stadiums are reopening at the same pace, but these protocols were especially common early in the season.
Classic activities like buying a hot dog have returned but with a twist. Many venues, including the Oakland Athletics’ RingCentral Coliseum, are implementing cashless concessions. According to ABC 7 News’ J.R. Stone and Matt Boone, the A’s are rolling out a mobile app that accepts payment and facilitates delivery to patrons’ seats.
What Do Fans Think?
Stone and Boone say some fans didn’t love the app, but convenience isn’t the only consideration. Face masks, socially distanced seating, and enhanced hygiene protocols were especially common across the league early in the season.
Oakland A’s fan Felisha Dias told Luisa Bertolli of the Berkeley High Jacket that she felt safe with the extra space between seats and that “the Oakland spirit was still very evident throughout the game.”
Spread-out seats can still inconvenience some fans, though. Paulette Cwik, a 68-year-old Chicago Cubs fan, told the Chicago Tribune’s Shannon Ryan that her 500-level seats were “miserable.” “It was hard for senior women to get around,” she added.
At New York Yankees and Mets games, fans can ditch the distance and sit in specially designated sections for fully vaccinated fans. However, there are some logistical hurdles.
Andrea Grymes of CBS New York spoke with Yankees fan Frank Ferrigno, who got his second dose a week before a game. The team, in accordance with standard medical guidance, considers individuals fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose. Ferrigno didn’t know that, though. He bought tickets in the vaccinated section and had to find new ones. “I’m running around in circles,” he said.
Despite some hitches, fans do approve of some changes, like mobile concession ordering, improved cleaning practices and touchless options. “It’d be nice if the facility had more things that were touchless; that probably should’ve been done earlier. The technology is catching up,” Bill Lesser, a Washington Nationals fan who returned to the ballpark with his wife Cindy, told Gabe Lacques of USA Today.
Winning Fans Back
Lacques notes, though, that teams must work to retain fans like the Lessers. The sight of MLB fans returning to stadiums may indeed be a welcome one for diamond diehards, but it is quite possible that more casual or Covid-conscious fans could choose to stay at home.
“This is about the time of the season where the fans get engaged, the weather warms up and people are ready for baseball. So for that to coincide with us moving to full capacity is perfect timing,” he said.
Yet, teams still must convert that renewed interest into action and get fans back in the ballpark.
Opening Day 2.0
The San Diego Padres will welcome fans back at full capacity on June 17. They are starting from scratch with a series of promotions surrounding what they’re calling “San Diego’s Opening Day.”
Per NBC San Diego, they’ll host a pregame show with a DJ outside the stadium and bring 250 military members on the field for the national anthem and a flyover. They’ll also have on-field player introductions before the game and a fireworks show after. Additionally, they’ll offer $5 beers at the second game, a concert before the third game, and pre- and post-game festivities for kids and dads for the final game of their first “normal” series, which falls on Father’s Day.
The Colorado Rockies are likewise hosting a “second Opening Day” when they return to 100% capacity on June 28. According to Ryan Osborne of the ABC 7 Denver, the team has moved first pitch from the evening to the afternoon to fit Opening Day tradition and plans to shoot off fireworks.
The Cincinnati Reds have already tried their hand at Opening Day 2.0 on June 2, which coincided with the MLB’s first ever Lou Gehrig Day. A team release says they offered $5 tickets to the game, gave the first 15,000 fans commemorative Gehrig baseball cards and hosted pregame festivities centered around the fight against ALS.
The Chicago White Sox are also offering giveaways. The club plans to give t-shirts, bobbleheads, Hawaiian shirts, tote bags, and retro apparel to the first 10,000 fans at a selected games this summer. They’re expected to return to full capacity by June 25, according to ESPN.
The opportunity to impact the game gives fans another incentive to leave the TV behind and return to the ballpark.
Dusty Baker, who became the manager of the Houston Astros following the club’s sign-stealing scandal, says the players appreciate the home support because they “haven’t gotten much love on the road.”
Per NBC 5 Chicago, star Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks said of playing in front of an increased-capacity St. Louis Cardinals crowd, “This is definitely the most normal it’s felt so far. It was awesome, just seeing everybody getting loud. You could feel the energy pulsing through the ballpark, and that’s what we love to play in.”
Just as returning to the ballpark is a sentimental experience for fans, seeing fans can be sentimental for players, too.
After the Los Angeles Dodgers won the 2020 World Series without having any fans at Dodger Stadium all season, the team’s ace, Clayton Kershaw, told CBS This Morning, “After 32 years (since the club’s last title), to finally win the World Series and get to see the reactions of the fans, I mean, that’s what hit home to me.”
For players and coaches alike, the ballpark can be like home. And even if it doesn’t look and feel fully normal just yet, it’s always good to be home.