Take Me Out to the (Socially Distanced) Ballgame

Even after baseball returned in 2020, a walk around Wrigleyville was anything but normal. The sounds of the Lowery organ, the players’ walkup music, and the fake crowd noise pumping out of the empty ballpark made the streets felt haunted. There were a handful of ballhawks at the corner of Kenmore and Waveland, and a few adventurous souls watched the games from the limited capacity rooftops across the street. But vendors were nowhere to be seen, and most of the nearby pubs and taverns were shuttered. A neighborhood that welcomes more than three million fans annually to the majors’ second oldest park felt like a ghost town.

Ten and a half months later, baseball and fans have returned to Wrigley Field, and so did I. Though I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect as I joined the 25% capacity crowd during the Cubs’ first home stand, I braced myself for that same feeling I experienced so many times walking through the neighborhood in 2020. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that the sense of desertion had been replaced by one of cautious renewal. Pandemic baseball isn’t the same as the standing-room-only crowds I remember from 2019, but it isn’t the shell we saw last season, either.

Not that everything is back to normal; there were constant reminders that we are still in a pandemic. Social distancing markers keep you six feet apart you line up to enter the ballpark and when you to go to the restrooms and concession stands. The center-concourse booths that used to sell t-shirts and programs have been removed to allow more room for fans, who are effectively zoned into certain areas in order to prevent crowds; tickets for Wrigley Field now contain a color code and specific entry time that corresponds to entry gates.

With the reduced capacity, the days of sitting next to a complete stranger are over. Like many teams, the Cubs require that ticket holders resell them only to someone within their close circle of COVID contacts or to another cohesive group. As much as the introvert in me liked the extra space, I was a bit sad thinking about how long it will be before I can teach a curious kid sitting next to me how to keep score. Nor do the Cubs encourage you leaving your seats or moving around. Unsold seats are zip-tied shut. If you’re hungry, you can place in-seat concession orders using a QR code or through the MLB Ballpark app for a limited number of items (at Wrigley, it’s hot dogs and drinks) that are delivered, prepackaged, to your seat. If you want to buy something in the concourse, you order via the app and pick them up once they are ready, with plexiglass separating you from the vendors.

The vast majority of fans wore their masks, with more handed out at the gate for those without. There were a handful of people near me who had to be repeatedly reminded by the ushers to put their masks on, but they were far enough away that I didn’t feel threatened by them. That feeling of risk will be a very personal calculation for each fan and is also informed by the ballpark’s capacity limit, which depends on the team.

COVID-19 Capacity Limits and Mask Rules by Ballpark
Team Capacity Percent Full Mask Restrictions?
ARI 20,000 40% Y%
ATL 20,500 50% as of April 23 Y
BAL 11,000 25% Y#
BOS 4,700 12% Y
CHC 10,000 25% Y#
CHW 8,900 22% Y*
CIN 12,700 30% Y
CLE 10,500 30% Y
COL 21,400 43% Y*
DET 8,200 20% Y
HOU 20,500 50% Y#
KCR 10,000 30% Y
LAA 14,000 33% Y
LAD 15,000 27% Y*
MIA 9,300 25% Y*
MIL 11,700 25% Y!
MIN 10,000 26% Y
NYM 8,500 20% Y*
NYY 10,850 20% Y
OAK 11,000 20% Y &
PHI 11,000 25% Y
PIT 9,600 25% Y*
SDP 14,000 33% Y
SEA 9,000 19% Y
SFG 9,200 22% Y
STL 14,600 32% Y*
TBR 9,000 36% Y*
TEX up to 40,300 Up to 100% , with select socially-distanced sections for some games Y
TOR 1,950 15% Y*
WSN 10,300 25% Y*
SOURCE: Each teams’ COVID protocols, supplemented by reporting from The Athletic
Additional specifications: * No gaiters/bandanas/vents, # No gaiters/vents, ! No face shields without mask/vents, % No gaiters, & No vents

The new health and safety policies are extensive and cover a lot more than masks; I couldn’t help but think that some of these policy changes have been on teams’ wishlists for awhile, and that the pandemic simply offered them an opportunity to enact them in the name of health and safety. Take, for example, the new bag policies that exist across the league. As Rich Hill and his wife found out when they tried to attend a Patriots game in 2019, sporting venues have installed increasingly restrictive bag policies in recent years. Athletic Business (a magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry) explained the motivation for teams in 2016 in an article about clear bag policies:

Any event management team’s preference would be to see fans arrive with nothing in hand but a ticket and perhaps a jacket. Bags brought to athletics events present a list of safety and security concerns ranging from mere nuisance to terrorism — fans may sneak in food, alcohol, noisemakers, weapons or other prohibited items — and checking each individual bag represents a substantial commitment of manpower, time, access control technology, or perhaps all three.

If this were a league-wide clear bag mandate like the NFL has, it might make sense. MLB, however, has 30 different teams adopting a hodgepodge of regulations. My 9-by-5 three-pocket crossbody bag is fine at Wrigley and 10 other ballparks, but in Atlanta, fans can only have a 9-by-5 single compartment purse. The Dodgers will let you bring in a much larger 12-by-12-by-6 bag, but it has to be clear. A handful of teams (the Tigers and Rays) have gone even further, banning all bags except for diaper bags and those that are medically necessary. It wouldn’t surprise me to see these restrictions stay in place long after social distancing and mask requirements have been relaxed or removed entirely.

Similarly, cash has been eliminated at 26 ballparks, including Wrigley; the remaining four strongly encourage cashless transactions. Like the bag policies, a cashless ballpark experience has been on the radar of sports teams long before the pandemic: Former Levy E15 CEO Jamie Faulkner talked about it with Forbes in February of 2019 when the Rays became the first MLB team to go that route. Concerns that COVID-19 could be passed on via surfaces provided an opportunity for teams to enact those policies, even though a recent study from the Bank of England cast doubt on physical money as a transmission vector.

If you don’t have a debit or credit card, most ballparks have set up some form of reverse ATM that will turn your cash into a debit card. But while these policies may be growing in popularity, they tend to harm the poor and further segregate the retail sector, as 7% of American households have no inhabitants with a checking or savings account — households that skew non-white. Making the game less welcome seems to fly in the face of MLB’s obsession with growing the game, but the pandemic created an opening, and baseball is far from alone in running through that door.

The fine print is not limited to capacity, bags, masks and cash. There are all sorts of idiosyncratic rules that differ from park to park. Many of them are based on local COVID-19 restrictions, which can vary substantially even across relatively small distances. So while New York City has predictably similar rules for the Mets and the Yankees (if you want to attend a game there this season, you will need either proof that you have been vaccinated with enough time for the vaccine to be fully effective or a negative COVID-19 test that was taken within 72 hours of the event), the rules elsewhere are less cohesive. The Giants are the only team outside New York City to require vaccination or a negative COVID test and are also limiting ticket sales to California residents. But across the bay in Oakland, you won’t need proof of a vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend an A’s game, though the same residency rules apply.

I’ll be the first to admit that the small print and endless new rules can be a bit overwhelming. My mind was racing as I walked up Waveland Avenue. Am I actually, really going to get to watch a Cubs game in-person? What if my bag isn’t the right type or size? What if I missed the fine print on the mask rule? Will they let me in at all?

But the hassle and anxiety of it all faded as I entered the left field gate, got my scorecard, and walked up the stairs to my seat in the grandstand. It turns out baseball is still, at least temporarily, an antidote to my tendency to overthink things.

The best moment of the game I went to back on April 7 was the most unexpected. I knew I would get teary-eyed when I saw the field for the first time; that occasionally happens even in non-pandemic circumstances. But I was totally unprepared to well up when the Cubs finally gave the home crowd something to cheer for in the eighth inning, when Joc Pederson tied the game with a home run and Javier Báez stepped up to the plate with no one out and a chance to take the lead. Suddenly, 10,000 people I didn’t know began chanting “Javy! Javy!” in a way that was both familiar and stunning. I had forgotten the feeling of community and hope that exists in a baseball crowd, and even though Báez struck out, it was a shared optimism that has been missing in my life for the last year.

I looked around and realized I wasn’t the only one with tears in their eyes, soaking in the whole moment. In my little section in left field, no one left this Cubs loss early; everyone was savoring the return of baseball to a neighborhood built around the nation’s pastime. It was a homecoming that restored something essential — something we’d all been missing for more than a year.

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1 year ago

There’s a very human desire to gather together in the face of tragedy or adversity, to share the burden and counter the isolation, to be a chorus that celebrates our resilience rather than a lone voice lamenting in the void. A week after September 11, 2001, the first day there were MLB games again, I attended — because it was something I just needed to do. The game was an otherwise-forgettable in-division matchup near the end of another long season; but just then, under the circumstances, it seemed important. Simply attending the game, a public event that was potentially a target, but also a token of normalcy in a crazy time, felt like an act of affirmation.

So I get it. I want to go to a game again, to return to those familiar rhythms from a life that has been put on hold, all those little rituals — the vendor you always visit, the view you always pause to take in, the taste of your preferred food or beverage made somehow better by being consumed in a seat in the sun in the stands — those little personal things that are all the more valuable now for having been taken from us. I want that. I want to sit in the bleachers and cheer. I want to push through crowds and, yes, right now I even want to be frustrated by getting to the ballpark, because that’s how normal life works. And more than anything I want, I think all of us want, normal life again.

But I can’t. Not yet. In a month, maybe, when I’m fully vaccinated and I’m fairly confident most of the other folks at the game and especially everybody working at the park is vaccinated too, maybe then I’ll feel ready. Because right now it feels a little too early yet to celebrate. It doesn’t feel like we’ve earned it. And the horrible irony of infectious disease is that it uses our social nature against us. That urge to gather, to celebrate, to cheer full-throated and join our breath with those around us in the face of the threat? That is the threat. And it’s not gone. Not yet.

So I’m looking forward to attending a game this year. Just not yet.

1 year ago
Reply to  Joser

I wonder if enough other people will share this view that great tickets will be crazy cheap this year on stubhub? Here’s hoping!