At the debut of a brand new Texas ballpark, the cracks of bats echo through empty stands
There’s nothing quite like a summer baseball game — except a baseball game in the summer of 2020.
In the age of a pandemic, ballparks are opening to players on the field but not to spectators. Gone are the thousands of sweaty fans, the hot dogs, the beer, the crowd-pleasing bits between innings.
Instead, cardboard cutouts of fans sit in the seats behind home plate. Sounds of cheering crowds blare through loudspeakers. The normally 162-game season has been shortened to 60 games.
Opening day was was especially bittersweet in Arlington, Texas, on Friday. The Texas Rangers hosted the Colorado Rockies for the first official game in the new $1.2 billion ballpark, Globe Life Field. It was a welcome moment of normalcy in a state devastated by high rates of deaths and hospitalizations from Covid-19 in recent weeks.
Still, it wasn’t quite the opening day that so many people here had imagined.
Fred Ortiz, of HKS Architects, has been working on the ballpark for four years, pouring his heart into a project along with the labor and skills of countless other people.
Earlier this week, Ortiz found himself sitting in the ballpark during batting practice before an exhibition game. He was trying to soak in the sounds of an empty arena that are normally drowned out by the fans — the crack of a bat, the pop of a mitt catching a ball.
“Somehow those are amplified and it’s almost a ‘Field of Dreams’ kind of experience because you’re just sitting here watching the guys on the field with no one around you,” he said. “It is kind of eerie.”
The multipurpose stadium was designed to create unique experiences for the fans, Ortiz said. But they’ll just have to wait a little while longer.
“I feel bad for those fans that truly want to be out here. I think that they’re hungry for … that live action, you know, live entertainment,” he said. “We’ve got to take safety first and be careful with that in hopes that that day will come, and I think it will be yet another ‘opening day.'”
In the new ballpark, one thing remains the same for the Rangers: Longtime announcer Chuck Morgan still sits in a booth and calls the game, his voice echoing throughout the stadium — even if the 40,000 seats remain empty.
“I’m such a fan of the fans, and I hate it that they can’t be here for the first game in a new ballpark,” Morgan said. “They probably waited all year for baseball season. We’ve all had to make sacrifices and everything, and this is a big sacrifice to ask a baseball fan not to come to the game.”
Morgan tried to maintain his legendary cheerful disposition, but it was clear he was not in his normal element. “I’m a little sad about it,” he said.
There’s not only concern for the fans but for the players. Officials are keeping a close eye on the teams. The Washington Nationals announced star Juan Soto tested positive for Covid-19, and he did not play in the season opener with the New York Yankees on Thursday night.
Soto has to test negative twice in a span of 24 hours in order to return to play, according to Major League Baseball protocol.
On Friday the MLB and MLB Players Association released the latest testing results through the end of Thursday, in which six out of 10,939 samples came back positive. Four of the positive tests were players and two were staff members.
New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter, who’s now the CEO of the Miami Marlins, weighed in on the new normal for baseball earlier this week in a virtual press conference. Jeter said it would be “irresponsible” to bring fans back at this point, especially in a place like South Florida, a recent Covid-19 hotspot.
Jeter described the new baseball experience as “strange” without the fans and something that will require a lot of focus from the players.
“Look, no one’s used to it, so it’s going to take you back to playing summer ball when you’re in grade school and high school,” he said. “So it’s going to take you back to true love of the game, but it will be a challenge to focus.”
For Morgan, who’s been announcing Rangers games for nearly 40 years, the experience is different but still better than nothing.
“The way I look at it, if this is what we have to do to have baseball — at least 60 games worth of it — then OK we’ll do it,” he said.