Closed Border Blues

Some of my fondest memories of baseball have nothing to do with the game being played on the field. Every summer like clockwork, my best friend and I set out on a new baseball adventure. We wait eagerly for the arrival of the next season’s schedule and make our travel plans accordingly. One year it was driving north through Florida to visit the stadiums in Miami, St. Petersburg, and Atlanta. Another year, we melted our way through the heat of July in the Midwest, seeing Kansas City, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Chicago.

The first time I ever took a solo road trip I did it to see baseball, visiting six stadiums and numerous baseball-themed attractions along the way. I survived traffic in Pittsburgh and scientifically determined the best cupcake shops in Washington D.C. (Red Velvet Cupcakery, though if you are a fan of sweeter, richer cupcakes, Baked and Wired is for you).

In Baltimore, a stranger gave me tips on the best place to try crab. In St. Petersburg, a friendly season ticket holder named Sherry overheard me telling the guest services attendant it was my first Rays game. She insisted on bringing me and my friend into the season ticket holders area and showing us around, as if being a Rays ambassador was her job (it should be). In Kansas City, I befriended a local so lovely that she invited me to come back and stay with her the following year to enjoy more games and more BBQ, and we went on a tour of Kauffman stadium.

Every wonderful memory I have of live baseball is tied to the ballpark friends I made along the way, the rich experience of finding familiar ground in an unfamiliar city. Whether I’m at Wrigley in Chicago or Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, I understand the rules, how things work within the friendly confines. The people who are sitting beside me might be strangers, but we are all there with a common passion: a love for baseball. It creates an instant intimacy and can make even an introvert like me willing to chat with someone I don’t know.

There have been a lot of sacrifices and disappointments for people around the world over the last 18 months, but for me, one of the hardest things to do in those early pandemic days was cancel my flights and hotel bookings for my first east coast road trip. Aside from getting to visit new stadiums on my quest to get to all 30 parks, there was the heartbreak of canceling plans with friends I only knew through baseball. Arrangements to meet up at ballparks, or get dinner in Cooperstown, were all set aside with a “hopefully in 2021.”

Now, in 2021, the plans have continued to be pushed back. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canadian/US border closures would continue until at least July 21. While there may be some easing of these restrictions for those who are vaccinated, right now it is exceptionally difficult for Canadian baseball fans to make plans to see their favorite teams play south of the border.

I asked a few of those fans how the ongoing border closures, and a lack of in-person baseball, has been impacting how they enjoy the sport.

Many of the fans I spoke to were like me, people who thought ahead to the trips they could take for baseball games. I wondered how frequently people made all their travel arrangements based solely on getting to a stadium. Gail Johnson, a Canadian Dodgers fan and blogger lamented her lost 2020 vacation. “I live on the East Coast (Moncton, New Brunswick) – about 3,500 miles from LA – so since it’s not an inexpensive trip, it requires me saving money and planning the trip well ahead of time, which means that the only time I’ve traveled out of the Atlantic provinces for the last five years has been to go out to see my Dodgers. I had a plane ticket and hotel rooms booked for Opening Weekend 2020 as well, which, needless to say, got canceled at the last minute.”

Expense is definitely a factor for traveling Canadian fans, even in regular times. Right now a flight from New Brunswick, where Johnson lives, to Los Angeles is about $1,250 CAD round-trip, and that doesn’t factor in the cost of a hotel, transportation, and tickets. (A round-trip domestic flight on Delta from the US East Coast to Los Angeles is about $550.) A lot of this has to do with the limitations of cross-border flights, and when travel opens up more broadly and mandatory quarantines for travelers are eased, things will hopefully start to become less expensive and flight options easier to come by. But it has always been expensive for Canadians to fly south.

For fans who have been accustomed to making those trips South for baseball, there has certainly been a gap in their plans over the past two years. Andy McKinnon, who lives in Toronto, and his parents, who live in Windsor across the river from Detroit, have all felt the absence of baseball. “In a normal year we are crossing the border four to five times specifically to see a ballgame,” he told me. “We often go to Detroit just for the afternoon for a game. My folks will often drive to see my sister in Winnipeg and make special stops to see games in Chicago, Minnesota, or Milwaukee.”

Traveling with the specific purpose of seeing games seems to be a standard family bonding experience for a lot of the people I spoke to. Dave Funnell, a Blue Jays fan, fondly recalled a game he and his dad went to together. “One of the best trips I’ve ever taken was to Detroit with my dad, simply to see the Tigers play. We walked around Comerica Park and took in a ball game years ago. I’ve also wanted to take my own kids to see a game in Pittsburgh and in Cleveland, as they’re both just over four hours away, but haven’t yet been able to do that.”

While they to a person acknowledged that the border closures were necessary and respected them, there was certainly a sense of frustration as well. Johnson said, “I always said that if the Dodgers win the World Series I would be there to see it in person no matter what, but that got taken away from me last year as I didn’t think it would be very responsible to travel to Texas to watch the Series.” Jays fan Jordan Cicchelli knows it will all be worth it in the end. “I’ve definitely even gotten emotional about it but just know that when I finally step foot in a baseball stadium again I’ll appreciate it a TON more.”

Funnell expressed well how difficult the border closures can feel for Canadians. “I fully support the closures and the measures that are being done to ensure that things are safe in both countries, but it’s still hard to see our friends from the south lose more and more restrictions, while we here in Ontario just finished with an at-home lockdown… I really wanted to take my dad to Cooperstown this year, since he’s never been, but I guess that will have to wait.”

I asked them if being unable to attend games in person was dampening their enjoyment of baseball overall. Were they watching fewer games on TV? Johnson was undeterred, never missing a Dodgers broadcast. She also said, “I actually think MLB handled the pandemic as well as it could have, it’s just the realities of the pandemic that have taken away some very special ‘in-person’ moments for me as a fan.” Cicchelli was the opposite, confessing it took her longer than usual to get back into watching games. “I’m so used to going to 10 games at least a year at the Rogers Centre. Lately, I’ve luckily been able to get right back into it but it definitely has impacted my decline in watching.”

McKinnon said if anything, it’s making him a more avid viewer. “[I] have been watching more baseball than ever possibly given the lack of other things to do here in Ontario.” Funnell shared a similar sentiment. “My dad still watches every Blue Jays game, I watch as many games nightly as I can, and I will continue to watch all summer.”

While the border closure currently extends until July 21, fully vaccinated Canadians now have more freedom if they do travel. As of July 5, they will no longer be required to submit to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period when they return home, something that gives travelers a bit more flexibility, knowing they don’t have to factor an extra two weeks off into their work and life plans.

As a light begins to appear at the end of the tunnel, some fans are beginning to book trips for later in the summer and towards September. Cicchelli was sad to cancel plans but that didn’t keep her from being optimistic for later this year. “I’ve been to Cleveland and Boston to see the Jays play on the road, I even booked a trip today to see the Jays play at Yankee Stadium this fall.”

For me, unless it’s a quick road trip down to Minneapolis, it will be another year before I’m able to sit in a real ballpark again. What I miss more than the games is that sense of community and camaraderie created by being in a crowd of thousands of people who are just as in love with the game as you are. Live games are more than the crack of the bat, or watching a ball soar overhead. It’s the sound of beer vendors hawking cans of Bud Lite. It’s hunting for the best spot in Great American to find a breeze when the temperature touches triple digits, and climbing all the way to the top deck of Busch Stadium to get a perfect photo at sunset with the Arch in the background.

What will make me happiest when I return to a ballpark will have everything and nothing to do with the game being played, but rather with the magic created tangentially to baseball.

The borders will open again, and someday soon I’ll be able to sit down in a stadium, remind my friends to put on their sunscreen, and drink the best bad beer I’ve ever had. Until then, I’ll just keep an eye out for next year’s schedule.

Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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1 year ago

I’m Canadian and quite anxious to continue my visiting of MLB Stadiums as well. You mentioned Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Pittsburgh is the most beautiful stadium and in Cleveland I always finf the view in “The Jake” excellent no matter where you sit. I have seen about 18 Stadiums and since I’m over 60 it is important to not lose another year.