The who, why and how of MLB’s decision to allow fans at the NLCS and World Series

Jon Stein, a 31-year-old Los Angeles resident, bought seven refundable roundtrip flights from LAX to Dallas Love Field for every day of the 2020 World Series, weeks before the tickets went on sale. He bought them even before Major League Baseball announced that, for the first time in a season shaped by the pandemic, fans would be admitted to games — starting on Monday with NLCS Game 1 in Arlington, Texas. After months of baseball games played in empty stadiums, there will be 11,500 tickets sold to each of the NLCS and World Series games taking place at the new Globe Life Field.

As soon as college football in the state started playing games in front of fans, Stein had a hunch MLB would follow suit. They had put the neutral-site World Series in Texas for a reason — to sell tickets in a state that has lax limits on large gatherings despite the coronavirus pandemic. And if there were going to be any number of fans at the World Series this year, Stein was determined to be one of them.

“Honestly, I’m just a huge fan. I love the Dodgers,” he says by way of explanation.

Stein is not crazy — at least as far as I can tell. Last time he was on an airplane was early March, pre-pandemic. He abides by all the restrictions in L.A. He’s been to some outdoor dining restaurants, seen a few friends, but flying to Texas for a baseball game will be the riskiest thing he’s done since the coronavirus forced everyone to stay home.

“I'm definitely not one of these people that thinks the whole thing is a hoax, or would never wear a mask,” Stein says. “I try to be independently safe and wear a mask and social distance, but also not completely like put my life on hold.”

And if the Dodgers lose to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS and don’t make it to the World Series?

“I would still go,” Stein says. “I would feel justified going for the experience.”

It’s a risk, but it’s one he and other fans are willing to take because they trust MLB to keep them safe.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 08: Dylan Floro #51 of the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrates with Will Smith #16 of the Los Angeles Dodgers after defeating the San Diego Padres 12-3 in Game Three of the National League Division Series at Globe Life Field on October 08, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Globe Life Field in Texas, hosting MLB playoff games as a neutral site, will become the league's first venue to allow fans since the coronavirus pandemic hit. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

MLB’s plan to keep fans safe

All throughout the regular season, a number of teams lobbied MLB for approval to host fans. As late as the end of August, clubs that had earlier in the summer been resigned to an entire, if shortened, season without fans were still trying to figure out how to salvage some September series open to spectators. Commissioner Rob Manfred resisted, refusing all requests for fans in the regular season.

The Rangers, with their brand new ballpark and an amenable local government, had been among the most eager to admit fans. They were awarded the National League side of the postseason “bubble” and the World Series itself. The league was encouraged when the stadium staff there successfully hosted local high school graduations in front of spectators.

And with the pandemic as entrenched as ever, redefining a new normal that looks poised to disrupt the 2021 season, there was additional motivation to admit fans for part of October.

“I think the real impetus here is actually to show that we can hold events safely, to put in protocols and execute those protocols and kind of demonstrate that we can bring a limited number of fans back as a prelude to hopefully doing that in more places next year, which is obviously extremely important to our business model,” said Bryan Seeley, MLB’s senior VP of investigations, compliance, and security.

In conjunction with local public health departments, the Rangers and MLB set about establishing those protocols, which they will be relying on to keep as many as 11,500 fans per NLCS and World Series game safe, even as COVID-19 cases in the Dallas area reach new highs.

Around the stadium, policies designed to limit touchpoints and close interactions have been implemented:

  • Ticket pedestals so fans can scan their own digital tickets.

  • Doors propped open.

  • A no-bag policy to eliminate the need for close contact during bag checks.

  • Pre-packed concessions, condiments, and utensils.

  • Seats that are not being sold will be tied up to prevent fans from filling in closer to one another.

  • Stadium staff will be given PPE.

  • Tailgating is prohibited to discourage congregating outside the stadium.

  • All transactions will be cashless.

The league decided against temperature checks at the gate, weighing their limited utility — not all positive cases will present with a fever — against the necessity of having a staff member close enough to each entrant to take a forehead read.

Entry to the stadium is a point of potential crowding. Metal detectors will be a CDC-recommended six feet apart, and, further back from the gate, markers on the ground will indicate where people should stand to stay appropriately distanced.

But all the protocols, especially for those about social distancing and mask wearing — which are the most important precautions for limiting spread — are only as good as the compliance. MLB and the Rangers will be relying on gameday staff to police patrons in a country and community where basic pandemic best practices have become controversial and highly politicized.

Much of what MLB has drawn up will hinge on safe and effective enforcement of mask usage.

Stadium staff have been sent instructions and will receive day-of training. Language included with each ticket sale and signage around the stadium will make it clear that failure to adhere to protocols will result in an expulsion from the game. To start, fans will have a “three-strike” policy when it comes to mask adherence, two warnings and then an ejection. The league is prepared to get stricter if that proves inefficient and remain responsive with its policies to ensure that it is broadcasting a reassuring picture of fans in the stands ahead of next season.

“The most important thing out of this whole postseason for us with regard to the return of fans is making sure people feel comfortable in the stadium, and that people watching on TV — and that includes mayors and politicians in other states with MLB teams — see that we can do this safely and that people are adhering to our rules,” Seeley said.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Mookie Betts (50) gestures after his double against the San Diego Padres during the fourth inning in Game 3 of a baseball National League Division Series Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Dodgers fans scooped up tickets to the World Series in anticipation of seeing Mookie Betts perhaps lead the franchise to its first title since 1988. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

‘I just have to be there’

The tickets went on sale to the general public Tuesday at 8 a.m. California time, after two days of special access for Rangers’ fans. Stein was ready with two different computer monitors and his phone at 7:50. A friend, who he will go with, was at his house ready to check as well.

“I have all these connections over the years in terms of like, emotional, personal feelings in the game,” Stein says. His family has had Dodgers season tickets his whole life. He was at Game 7 of the 2017 World Series when they lost to the Astros in L.A. His grandfather died shortly after that season.

“So I just have to be there, and at least say that I went to a game at the World Series when they finally win one. It's been so long.”

Stein knew he was going to have to buy four tickets to each game. As part of their slate of safety precautions, MLB is only selling tickets in “pods” of four, designed to be shared among people quarantining together, that will be distanced from one another. He was prepared to spend several hundred dollars on each ticket, but when the best available were $100-$150, he sprang for multiple games.

All told, Stein and his friend have four tickets to Games 1, 2, and 4. He estimates that he spent about $1,100 and that his friend spent about $600. They’ll try to find other friends to fill out the pod, but will simply leave the other two seats open if they can’t.

Keeping the pods intact

The pod system is a key feature of MLB’s safety plan. But pretty quickly, the system becomes porous — either because ticket holders intend to ask around to find secondary or tertiary connections to attend the game with, or because of the implicit incentive for resale.

All the World Series tickets sold out on the first day that they were available to the public. (As did Monday’s NLCS Game 1. Since then several other, but not all, NLCS games have sold out.) Some of those were to fans like Stein, who are determined to go and honor the pod system. But without matchups determined at the time, many of those tickets have already ended up on the secondary market.

MLB intends to control the pods there, too. The Rangers website directs ticket-seekers to make use of StubHub, MLB’s approved resale vendor. Prices there are already through the roof, several hundred or thousands of dollars per ticket. And you still have to buy all four.

If you check often enough, smaller increments will appear. In a statement to Yahoo Sports, StubHub said it was coordinating with MLB to monitor active listings and “take down those that do not adhere” to MLB’s policy. It also planned to void transactions that would break up the pods.

Ryan Sides is a 34-year-old Astros fan who lives in Denton, Texas. He wasn’t confident enough in his 6-seed team to spring for tickets when they first went on sale. Now that the Astros are through to the ALCS, he’s started checking prices on the secondary market. The problem is, he doesn’t need four seats, and isn’t willing to buy them anyway as a buffer.

“This is where it's frustrating from my standpoint, why they didn't have pods of twos and threes and space them out like that,” he says. “I would pay $500 for a ticket no problem, but now if I buy four tickets, I'm not paying $2,000.”

Sides has been safe, avoiding indoor dining and adhering to mask recommendations. During the Stanley Cup Finals, he went to a couple official Dallas Stars watch parties and was encouraged by how safe it seemed in terms of social distancing and near-total mask wearing. But this ticket predicament and a desire to see an Astros clinch in person has him considering less regulated routes.

“I’ve thought about this,” he says of buying a split-pod set of tickets off Craigslist, or something like it. “I probably wouldn’t.”

But if he changes his mind, the option is there. Even if he doesn’t, someone will.

You could argue that if fans scalp tickets in defiance of MLB’s protocols, or if they nurse a beer or a bucket of popcorn for hours at a time as a mask loophole, they’re at fault for any assumed risk. But fault isn’t really what’s at stake here.

The roof at Globe Life Field is opened as the Los Angeles Dodgers take batting practice before Game 3 of the baseball team's NL Division Series against the San Diego Padres on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
MLB hopes to publicly prove it is capable of keeping fans safe by allowing limited attendance at the NLCS and World Series in Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

A flawed experiment

Spread within a single pod — even if they are strangers, or more likely, acquaintances — wouldn’t be a huge problem if it stopped there. The issue, however, is that regardless of how MLB is handling the player part of the postseason, attending an NLCS or World Series game does not occur in a “bubble.”

Over the past week, Texas has averaged over 4,500 new COVID-19 cases a day, an increase of 9 percent compared to two weeks ago. It’s enough that seven different states have flagged Texas as an “area with a high rate of confirmed infections,” meaning that anyone who spends more than 24 hours in Texas is required to self-quarantine for 14 days upon returning to that state. The point is that travel to and from hot spots spreads the coronavirus around the country, perpetuates the pandemic, and can quickly undo the gains of any local lockdowns.

MLB can implement an ironclad-on-paper array of protocols at the stadium, but can’t get around the reality that hosting a World Series in Arlington that necessarily does not include the Rangers incentivizes fallible people to travel to the area.

If we learned anything from the regular season, it’s that — given enough moving pieces and no dress rehearsal — the coronavirus will find a way to get through the cracks. If you expand the purview to include all attendant travel, some level of spread is probably inevitable as baseball invites upwards of 100,000 people to introduce a new level of risk into their life.

When it came to players and baseball staff, MLB caught the spread early and was able to conduct rigorous contact tracing within a closed circuit. If a positive test is linked to postseason game attendance, MLB is prepared to provide any and all information — names of fans from a surrounding area, for example — to public health departments to aid in the process. But ultimately, MLB simply does not have the authority to contact trace people outside the organization. And few people outside of professional athletes are tested regularly enough to determine exactly when and where they contracted COVID-19 even if they eventually turn up positive.

That means it will be hard to tell how dangerous the decision to sell postseason tickets really is. The league wants a chance to battle-test its protocols ahead of a 2021 season, but that means enlisting real people into an experiment that doesn’t include following up to figure out if they got infected as part of the experience. And besides, even if MLB learns what works and what doesn’t, it’ll be too late to limit the damage.

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