Paul Sullivan: Fans are back at the ballpark — but is that for financial reasons instead of hope for the future?

Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read

CHICAGO — Fans are back in the ballpark for the first time since spring training, social distancing and wearing masks in their seats.

Presumably they’re also following those same protocols in the restrooms, though anyone who has been to a men’s restroom in a stadium knows social distancing at the urinals is easier said than done.

It’s only one ballpark — Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas — and only in place for the National League Championship Series and next week’s World Series, which begins Tuesday.

Globe Life basically is a petri dish for Major League Baseball, which decided to make 28.5% of the stadium’s capacity available to fans for a possible 14 postseason games, hoping to show it would be safe for fans to return to their favorite parks in 2021.

“When we decided on neutral sites, Texas does have a regulation that permits fans in stadiums,” Bryan Seeley, a senior vice president with MLB, told ESPN. “We started to give some thought about whether it was a good opportunity to do it as a prelude to next year.”

All seven World Series games already are sold out at around 11,500 capacity, so it appears many aren’t overly concerned about the possibility of contracting COVID-19 in an open-air park. And based on the Fox Sports telecasts of the Los Angeles Dodgers-Atlanta Braves games, many had no qualms bringing their kids.

According to an AP report, about 75% of fans at Game 1 of the NLCS were compliant with mask-wearing protocols. That’s still too low a percentage for me to feel safe, but better than we’ve seen on many college football telecasts.

Meanwhile, as baseball opens its doors to fans, the NFL and college football have been forced to postpone games left and right after players, coaches and staff contracted the coronavirus. And the number of COVID-19 cases around the country is once again on the rise, with more than 60,000 new infections reported Thursday, the highest since early August, according to the Washington Post.

So is MLB making a sensible decision by allowing fans into Globe Life now to help sell tickets in 2021, or is it needlessly risking fans’ health for financial reasons?

As the regular season proved, we don’t really need fans inside ballparks to provide entertainment. Everyone seemed to miss them, of course, except for Houston Astros pitcher Zack Greinke, who said the absence of fans was “nice” for him.

“Because there’s no one trying to talk to you and ask for autographs and wanting to take pictures and all that stuff,” he said. “I don’t like any of that stuff.”

Greinke was once diagnosed with depression and social anxiety order, so he probably was the exception to the rule. The absence of fans was brought up dozens of times during teleconferences this season with the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, and no players said they enjoyed playing without them.

In fact, some media speculated the Cubs’ all-time low .210 batting average at Wrigley Field was due to the lack of fans cheering them on, and that Javier Baez in particular suffered because he needed the “energy” of the crowds to excel. I don’t buy it, but it’s a theory.

Everyone wants to see fans back as soon as possible, because a crowded ballpark would mean the virus is under control. But since we have no idea where we’ll be five months from now when next season begins, it’s ludicrous to believe allowing fans in now would make it safe to attend games in all ballparks next March.

Still, there are players to pay and season ticket packages to sell. The Cubs leaked to ESPN they plan on allowing 50% capacity at Wrigley at the start of 2021, basically giving season-ticket holders the ballpark to themselves.

They allowed family and guests of employees into Wrigley Field for the two playoff games against the Miami Marlins, and even set up a concession stand in the upper deck to accommodate them.

The fans were mostly restricted to one seating area down the left field line, though some Cubs officials and their guests were allowed in the Catalina Club and adjoining seats under the press box, where many were seen not adhering to mask-wearing protocols, prompting the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to file a grievance that MLB currently is investigating.

I suppose we should just be happy that baseball made it this far. Remember back in early August when it looked as if we would never get to the postseason, much less the World Series? After COVID-19 outbreaks within the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals organizations, there was little optimism baseball could contain the spread of the virus for even a reduced 60-game schedule.

But after more stringent protocols were put in place, the number of positive tests fell dramatically. MLB announced Friday there were no new positives out of 5,026 tests last week, giving them 47 consecutive days without a new positive and 55 out of 56 days with no positives.

It probably is as close to perfect as anyone could’ve asked for and a tribute to the players and staffs for adhering to the protocols.

We can hope next year will be different — that fans can roam freely inside ballparks, players can talk to the media face-to-face and fake crowd noise will be a thing of the past.

But just remember where we were at five months ago, in late May, wondering whether there would be a season at all.

Trying to project what life will be like five months from now is a fool’s errand.

As they say in baseball, everything is “day by day.”

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