Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 25, 2021

Getting Ready To Play, And Cheer, In A Pandemic Year

Spring Training in a pandemic is decidedly surreal. Since last March, the common assumption has been that last year’s training camp would be remembered as the one that was impacted by COVID-19. But while it is true that MLB took the unprecedented step of shutting down 2019’s Spring Training as part of the sudden and complete silencing of sports at every level, up until the day that dramatic step was taken the growing threat of the coronavirus had barely impacted baseball’s preparatory rituals. The only significant concession to the spreading virus had been the closing of clubhouses to members of the media, to lessen the chances of players being exposed.

In retrospect, even that small step demonstrated how little was known about COVID-19. For while teams went to considerable lengths to protect players, all thirty franchises continued to welcome fans into Spring Training ballparks. Capacity crowds that skewed older, given the high percentage of retirees in both Florida and Arizona, crammed into the little minor league facilities that serve as training camp stadiums right up until the day play was suspended. Meanwhile, many members of the media loudly protested the lack of access to players, oblivious to the fact that they were about to face the far more serious problem of having no sport to write about.

Twelve arduous months later, this year’s Spring Training has looked and felt different from the day pitchers and catchers reported. At most sites, the batterymates were kept apart from position players until exhibition games began. Team practices, for many fans a more important part of springtime than the preseason contests themselves, have been closed to the public. The familiar scene of kids clamoring for autographs from their heroes has fallen victim to the requirements for social distancing. As for the games, they are in so many ways unlike any that have been played in other years.

The Philadelphia Phillies have spent Spring Training in Clearwater for seventy-five years. By that measure, the team’s 2005 move to BayCare Ballpark counts as relatively recent. The little stadium, which sits next to the Phillies’ year-round training complex, was built as a replacement for dilapidated Jack Russell Stadium, which in turn had been a 1954 replacement for Clearwater Athletic Field, the franchise’s original home on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Once the big league team heads north, BayCare Ballpark is home to the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies’ Low-A minor league affiliate. The single bowl of seats that runs from one foul pole to the other is supplemented by a sitting and standing area on a grassy berm beyond the outfield fences. That open space allows for some flexibility in crowd management, so while the stadium’s official capacity is 8,500, a record attendance of 11,340 fans wedged themselves into every available spot to see the Yankees upend the home squad 7-3 on March 17, 2019.

The 2021 editions of those same two teams met on Thursday, and the most striking difference was clear driving up to the field. The expansive main parking lot across Old Coachman Road held just a smattering of cars, because the small lots adjacent to the field were more than enough to accommodate the sharply reduced attendance mandated by the city because of the pandemic. There were no lines of fans making their way through the metal detectors, up the broad steps of the ballpark’s main entrance to its Spanish mission style exterior façade, and through the gates to the concourse behind the stadium’s seats. Fewer than 2,300 tickets were sold, all in pods of two to four seats, spaced out around the seating sections or in well-separated rectangles painted on the outfield berm. Those who were able to secure tickets were told repeatedly by the public address announcer that masks were to be worn at all times. And while there were inevitably some who apparently believed that merely thinking about the possibility of having a beer constituted “actively eating or drinking” – the only time masks were to be removed – for the most part a spirit of cooperation prevailed.

Nor were the fans the only ones wearing masks. The umpiring crew, managers coming out to make pitching changes, and the coaches on either base line were similarly attired. However even with the muffling effect of the cloth coverings, the small crowd made it easy to hear sounds from the field that would normally go unnoticed in the stands. It was reminiscent, and not in a good way, of the echoes that bounced around Olympic Stadium in Montreal when the Expos, in their final year before moving to Washington, D.C., played regular season games in front of crowds that were so small as to be barely worthy of the term.

Just as Spring Training games are a chance for players to sharpen their skills before the contests that count begin next week, so this year they are an opportunity for fans to acclimate to the experience of going to a ballpark during this pandemic. Allowable attendance will vary from city to city once Opening Day arrives, but at most stadiums across the country the crowds will be sharply limited, at least through the coming season’s opening months. It will make for a vastly different and in some ways sad experience, while also making it especially hard for fans to provide the energy that can boost the fortunes of home teams. There is only so much noise that one-fifth or one-quarter of a full house can generate.

And yet it is still the Great Game. If the background is different, if the feeling is more antiseptic, it is still baseball. The Yankees and Phillies reminded fans of that on Thursday with a contest that was filled with shifts in momentum and culminated with the visitors rallying in the top of the 9th inning, erasing a six-run lead, only to have the home squad break the tie in the bottom of the final frame, sending Phillies fans home happy with a walkoff win. No matter that by then the participants were all young players who will soon be sent off to a minor league assignment. The Great Game endures, even in a pandemic.

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