Among the many odd features of baseball in 2020 — next to new rules and fake noise — is the advent of cutout fans. Many teams have placed them in the seats behind home plate, filling the most visible void in their empty stadiums. The novel coronavirus pandemic has made real crowds a non-starter. Cardboard faces are a weird nod to an old normal.
But the Washington Nationals have kept the space empty despite requests from sponsors, season ticket holders and even Juan Soto, their 21-year-old left fielder. Soto commissioned cutouts of more than a dozen family members to celebrate his long-awaited season debut Wednesday. He wanted to put them behind home plate, according to people with knowledge of the situation, but the Nationals did not let him. The main reasons, according to those with knowledge of the organization’s thinking, were a lucrative Delta sponsorship and upholding precedent.
As of now, the Nationals — who did not make any members of their business department available for an interview for this story — have no plans to put cutouts or gimmicks in that area. Delta’s logo is on each of the blue seats. The Nationals already have turned down other sponsorship offers, as well as fans willing to pay to have their faces in the broadcast view, and they didn’t change their approach with Soto. The team instead compromised, placing his cutouts in left field, behind where Soto stands on defense. They still got a good amount of attention, including an in-game spot on the Nationals’ television broadcast.
“All this has been crazy,” said Soto, who had to quarantine for 24 days in July between potential exposure to the coronavirus and then testing positive before Opening Day. “I just want to feel my family back there.”
There is no set rule for cutouts behind home plate. The New York Mets have them throughout the lower bowl at Citi Field, and fans can purchase a seat to put their picture in. The Arizona Diamondbacks have put teddy bears in the stands, honoring Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The Colorado Rockies have featured headshots of current and former players behind home plate.
The Toronto Blue Jays plan to have fan cutouts at Sahlen Field, their Class AAA facility in Buffalo. They can’t play in Canada this season, so the team used the promotion as a way to connect with fans from across the border. A recent advertisement read: “JOIN US AT OUR HOME AWAY FROM DOME (NO PASSPORT REQUIRED).”
On Wednesday in Kansas City, cutouts turned into a midgame gimmick. Marlins Man, who frequents ballparks around the country while wearing an orange Marlins jersey, was featured in a cutout behind home plate. Then Sluggerrr, the Royals’ mascot, used a pole to dangle a white Royals T-shirt in front of it. This all happened as the Chicago Cubs’ Yu Darvish was facing Ryan McBroom. But for the standards of 2020, when weird is the new normal — and normal doesn’t exist — it was easy to shrug off.
The Nationals, though, have kept that area empty. Delta is the sponsor for the Delta Sky360 Club, the luxury area behind home plate that is typically filled with high-paying fans. Now cameras may catch pitchers lounging in the stands because they are banned from the dugout to limit crowding. But they don’t sit in the sections closest to the field, which have not hosted people, cutouts or any fanfare since the regular season began.
During summer training, there was concern that midday sun could glare off the blue seats and distract players. Some Nationals noticed it during simulated games in the late morning or early afternoon. The New York Yankees placed a tarp on the seats behind home plate, creating a sort of reserve batter’s eye. The Nationals did not do so for their first 4:05 p.m. start of the season; they have a 12:35 p.m. matchup with the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday.
Fans will soon see whether Soto’s cutouts start a local trend. On Wednesday, when he was finally allowed to play, Soto jogged to left field and pointed into the left field corner. He scanned the faces of his father and mother, his brother and sister, and two uncles that have never been to Nationals Park. No inning would start without him glancing their way.
“It feels like they are out there,” Soto said. “I’m playing for them. I play for all my family, and everything I do is for them.”
But in reality, a grim word in 2020, most of them are back in the Dominican Republic. They are unable to fly to see Soto. And even if they could, only players, coaches, umpires, media and essential staff are allowed in ballparks.
Many players have been away from their parents, wives and children since workouts began July 3. Only three Nationals — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman — have a permanent residence in the Washington area. The team recently played a pregame video of family members sending well wishes from afar. Soto was just the first to bring reminders into the stands, and he may not be the last.
“I think he opened up a can of worms,” said Manager Dave Martinez, adding that he would like to get cutouts of his kids and grandchildren. “So we’ll see what happens here.”
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