Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 1, 2021

A Hopeful Beginning Amid Signs Of Caution

With Gerrit Cole’s first pitch in the Bronx, shortly after one o’clock Thursday afternoon, the longest season got underway.  From the big Stadium on the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue, on across the continental time zones like a long-haul eighteen-wheeler filled with the hopes and dreams of millions of fans, the Great Game returned to the fore of our national conversation about sports.  That it did so on the first day of April with a schedule that originally had all thirty franchises in action at fifteen ballparks in twelve states and the District of Columbia, with the ersatz cardboard cutouts of 2020 replaced by real live fans in every one, symbolized progress against the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when set against the long-delayed and truncated campaign of last year.  But if the cheers that greeted shouts of “play ball” from east coast to west were a rightful sign of hope, the extent to which this Opening Day was different from the usual was a firm reminder that a return to normal is still a distant goal.

Limits on attendance varied between jurisdictions, from Boston’s 12 percent up to 100 percent of capacity at the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Field, with 20 percent the most common ceiling.  But not every club chose to fill all the seats allowed, and there was evidence of caution among fans.  The Rangers don’t play their home opener until Monday, but an exhibition game earlier this week drew fewer than 13,000 of the stadium’s 40,300-seat capacity.  In absolute numbers, Thursday’s biggest crowd was at Coors Field, where the Rockies admitted 20,570 through the stadium’s gates to watch the home team upend the defending world champion Dodgers, 8-5.  At the other extreme, the Blue Jays are certain to have the smallest attendance once all thirty teams have played their home opener by early next week.  Because of travel restrictions to Canada, the Jays will begin the season playing home games at their Spring Training facility in Dunedin Florida, where the permitted 15 percent capacity of the little minor league park amounts to fewer than 1,300 paying customers.

Still, social media posts from members of the media who were present throughout the fanless short season of 2020 marveled at the noise and energy generated by the presence of cheering faithful, even if their numbers were just a fraction of a typical Opening Day.  Of course, we fans have known all along how important we are to the outcome of every contest, which is what has made the last year in sports so stultifying.

The hope, from franchise front offices to players to season ticket holders to families longing for a Sunday afternoon together in the outfield bleachers, is that as the schedule slowly unwinds through the long months ahead, the current attendance restrictions will gradually be relaxed.  Simply by virtue of the calendar, over the course of this season the Great Game could become the sport that symbolizes our return to an environment approximating the one we all once took for granted.

That sentence is necessarily conditional, because for all the progress that has been made in recent months, the future course of the pandemic remains uncertain.  As great as it was to see fans in the stands from coast to coast, the acres of empty seats on Opening Day were gaping reminders of that uncertainty.  As were first pitches played on jumbotrons rather than being thrown live, temperature checks at the turnstiles, food stands refusing to accept cash, and all the other concessions to COVID-19 at ballparks from New York to San Diego and from Miami to Seattle.

Then there was the game that wasn’t played.  Washington Nationals players and staff were tested as they broke training camp in West Palm Beach on Monday, as they had been throughout Spring Training.  On Wednesday, the team announced that those tests produced one positive result from a player, with that individual and direct contacts going into quarantine while further tests and tracing got underway.  By midday Thursday Nationals GM Mike Rizzo delivered the unhappy news that the number of players testing positive had grown to three, with a fourth considered a “likely positive.”  The evening contest between Washington and the New York Mets was scrubbed, with no immediate word on makeup plans beyond an announcement that it would not be played on Friday. 

The news was a haunting reminder of the ragged start to the shortened 2020 season last July, when the virus swept through the Miami Marlins clubhouse, ultimately infecting 21 players and coaches.  The St. Louis Cardinals also had an early season COVID-19 outbreak, and there were more limited cases involving four other clubs.  Forty games were postponed, although in the end all but two contests between the Cardinals and the Tigers were rescheduled.

Last winter’s attempt by some owners to postpone the start of play until May and shorten the season is already long forgotten. The 2021 regular season calendar stretches over the usual six months, an eternity compared to the mere ten weeks of 2020’s sixty-game novella.  There will be ample opportunity for the two NL East rivals to fill in this hole in their schedules, even if it turns out that their entire three-game opening set cannot be played.  For now, at least, the concern is not about any larger impact on the 2021 season, but rather, and appropriately, on the health of the players.  But on an Opening Day that was at once both welcomed for its familiarity and distinguished by its differences with past ones, Nationals ace Max Scherzer not taking the mound in D.C., hours after Yankees ace Cole did so in the Bronx, demonstrated that while baseball may well lead sports out of the pandemic, like so much else in life over the past twelve months, the Great Game doing so is not yet a sure thing.

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