What You Can Bring to the Ballpark in 2021

It’s just under 150 miles by road from Vancouver to Seattle — not necessarily an easy round-trip distance, but one that’s covered easily enough over the course of a day, given planning around border waits and traffic. It’s certainly a more reasonable distance to cover than the thousands of miles over mountain and prairie to the only other major league ballpark within Canada’s borders. For most people in western Canada, the most frequent major league ballpark they’ll make a trip to is Seattle’s T-Mobile Park.

I’ve gone to T-Mobile Park via a few different means of transportation. When I was a toddler, my family would sometimes take day trips down in the car when the Blue Jays or Yankees were in town. We weren’t able to go for many years after that, but when we did manage to take trips down in 2016 and ’17, it was a matter of a great deal of planning: making sure the car wouldn’t break down on the way (or renting one, when we didn’t have a car), accounting for the cost of tickets and food and parking. Not to mention, too, the amount of time that would need to be committed. Added up, these trips were luxuries, a single day a year set aside for a baseball pilgrimage.

By far the most frequent way I’ve gotten to T-Mobile Park, though, is the bus. There was the Greyhound, or the Bolt Bus, or one of the other interchangeable bargain travel services that operated cross-border routes. They were frequently late, often unhelpful, and almost always uncomfortable, but they fulfilled their purpose: For someone who didn’t have a car, or couldn’t access a rental, they were a cheap way of getting from Point A to Point B.

The first time I took the bus to a baseball game in Seattle was by chance, a happy accident. My partner and I had taken a weekend trip on the Greyhound down to Olympia to see the final date of a concert tour. But our return trip was delayed: the bus coming up from LA had run into some kind of horrible traffic, and we sat for almost three hours in the stuffy, sometimes unstaffed, exceedingly cramped bus station in Olympia. As a result, we missed our evening transfer in Seattle. By the time we got there, it would be another three hours of waiting for the next bus up to Vancouver at 10 PM.

Exhausted, I stepped out of the Seattle bus station for some air. Carrying through the cold, drizzly night, from under the lights of the closed roof over in the near distance, I could hear the faint sounds of baseball: the muttering of the crowd, the blasts of music. I had never realized how close the bus station was to the ballpark; I’d never had reason to think about it. Suddenly, the question of how to fill the hours ahead didn’t seem like a matter of dread. What if we could just go to the game?

So we hustled over from the bus station, carrying our two days’ worth of clothes and supplies in our backpacks. We arrived right before the ticket sales cutoff. I grabbed a pair of whatever the cheapest tickets were. My partner had never been to a major league ballpark before, let alone this one; it didn’t matter where we sat, because I knew we wouldn’t be sitting much. It was a tight early-season game heading into the last three innings between the Mariners and the Astros, with the Mariners ahead 2-1, and though there weren’t many people there at all, I could feel the energy — or maybe it was my own, sharpened by fatigue and relief, the thrill of an experience I hadn’t even imagined becoming real.

In the top of the ninth, as Edwin Díaz came out to close, I realized we had to leave; the time had passed so quickly, and the scheduled departure of our bus — the last one leaving Seattle for the night — was fast approaching. We hurried out into the dark, back to the bus station, as the sounds of the crowd, rising steadily with each pitch, reaching a crescendo as Díaz retired the final batter, carried us forward like a tide.

That summer, whenever I could find the time and the money, I would get on the Greyhound in the morning, catch an evening game in Seattle, and take the return trip back. It was tiring; I often wouldn’t arrive home until two or three in the morning. But there was something so special about the undertaking of that journey, the way I would have to time everything perfectly, the anticipatory walk from the bus station to the stadium — the view from the third level as the sun set over the water, knowing that by the time it rose again I would be back home in another country, a world entirely different from the one inside the park, this place I had traveled so far to reach. It was distinct from how it felt to go to a minor league game in town or to drive down with my family. Each time you go to a baseball game, you’re entering a space sectioned off from the world, designed to give you an experience outside of your everyday life. But it’s what you bring with you — how you get there, who you’re with, and what you’re leaving at home — that charges the experience, that makes an afternoon spent watching yet another baseball game feel worthwhile, even after a lifetime.

***

I didn’t get to attend any kind of baseball game in 2020, nor have I yet in 2021. COVID-19 has presumably changed a lot about the ballpark experience, just as it has every other sphere of human experience. Many ballparks are operating at limited capacity; social distancing is encouraged; some stadiums have vaccinations being offered. There is mask-wearing, and there are vaccinated and unvaccinated cheering sections. Many of these changes are temporary. Some of the changes implemented at stadiums during COVID-19 — namely, cashless transactions and stricter bag policies — are likely here to stay long-term.

Prior to the 2020 season, MLB handed down a uniform bag policy across all stadiums: Any bag (not backpack) entering a ballpark must be no larger than 16″ by 16″ by 8″. This policy is similar to those already in place at many event venues. It also echoes the NFL’s policy, which specifies that all bags entering stadiums must not exceed 12″ by 12″ by 6″, and must, with the exception of small clutches and wallets, be made of clear plastic. The Diamondbacks and the Marlins have essentially copied the NFL’s policy with respect to allowable bags being clear and plastic; the Diamondbacks also copied the NFL’s specified bag dimensions. Ten other MLB teams have stuck to the 16″ by 16″ by 8″ specified by MLB.

The remaining majority of MLB teams have taken this opportunity to discourage bags at the ballpark altogether. All of them make provenance in their policy for diaper bags accompanying infants and for bags holding necessary medical equipment, though these must also meet the 16″ by 16″ by 8″ requirement. They also allow “clutch-sized” bags, though the permitted sizes for these vary by team, apparently arbitrarily. At Nationals Park, for example, the allowable size for a clutch-sized bag is 5″ by 7″ by 3/4″; at PNC Park, it’s 8″ by 5″ by 1″; at Tropicana Field, it’s 4.5″ by 6.5″. To account for the confusion that will likely be created in some by these new rules, a few teams have begun to offer storage for people’s illegal items at the ballpark gates. In Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, you can rent a storage bin for $10 per bag. In Washington and Seattle, prices vary. Otherwise, security policies tend to say the same thing: Return your forbidden items to your vehicle, the presence of which is assumed, or throw them away.

A strict bag policy is, on the whole, a minor deterrent to attending a baseball game. Cost and distance are much more imposing barriers; for people who can deal with those, trying to figure out if your bag is permitted is small potatoes. The NFL policy received its share of complaints when it was implemented, but people keep going to NFL games. And people will probably keep going to MLB games, too, even as they negotiate the effects of what Baseball Prospectus‘ Patrick Dubuque called “a string of microannoyances” that have changed the way we experience a day at the ballpark. If there are people who decide not to go or who get turned away at the gate because they don’t meet the bag requirements, or because they’re annoyed by them, or because they didn’t budget for storage, or because their phone couldn’t download the storage app — well, they likely aren’t the target demographics for ticket sales, anyway. It is the loss of a set of ballpark experiences that wasn’t very large to begin with.

***

At a game in Seattle once, I talked to an elderly couple who had driven all the way from one of Canada’s prairie provinces, only to find that all nearby accommodations in their price range were sold out — an influx of fans with similar intentions to catch the Blue Jays series had snapped them up. So they slept in their small car, which they’d driven over mountains and plains for many hours — and here they were the next day, in the seats, in the sunshine, telling me all about it as the players warmed up on the field. Around us were people who had driven down, who had flown, who had taken the Amtrak; people who had walked from their apartments, or taken the light rail, or driven from the suburbs. Every person bringing something different that afternoon: a different journey, with different expectations.

I sat there with them, with my backpack full of everything I needed for a cross-border bus trek. A coat, because I left in the morning and came back in the middle of the night. My wallet. My passport. My medications. My phone and a phone charger. A water bottle; a sandwich; a shirt from the team store that I bought for my brother; some knitting, maybe. A notebook and a pen to write with.

Would I have taken that trip if I hadn’t been able to bring anything? Would I have worn my coat in the hot sunshine, stuffed my wallet and my passport and my phone in my pockets, hoped that nothing fell out, that nothing went wrong? If I hadn’t been able to take that first walk from the bus station with my partner, if they hadn’t let us into the ballpark with our heavy backpacks and tired feet as the sixth inning drew to a close on that rainy April night — would I have gone on any of those exhausting, magical ballpark roundtrips at all?

Of course, thanks to the pandemic, I don’t know when I’ll be able to go to Seattle for a baseball game again. I hope it’s soon. Whenever it is, I will spend some time before I leave thinking about what I’m not taking with me.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

newest oldest most voted
CoryMC
Member
CoryMC

Excellent, as always.