Fans peeking at their phones between pitches watched the world change that day. More and more NCAA conferences were canceling their basketball tournaments by the hour. The NHL paused its season in the middle of the third inning. By the time the game was over, MLB announced it was suspending spring training and pushing the regular season back about two weeks because of the coronavirus. No fans watched either team play in person again in 2020.
But on Sunday, with green tarps pulled tightly over most seats and masks pulled over most faces, fans streamed into the stands at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., and watched the Nationals play again in their Grapefruit League opener, a 4-4 tie against the St. Louis Cardinals. There were only around 1,500 fans this time, about 21 percent of what the park could hold in healthier times.
But those 1,500 fans were enough to roar when Cardinals stars Nolan Arenado and Yadier Molina were announced over the public address system. They were enough to make audible groans when home plate umpire Angel Hernandez’s strike zone victimized Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty. They, and the 1,500 or so fans that populated ballparks elsewhere in Florida and Arizona on Sunday, were enough to serve as a small and cautious suggestion that healthier times may be on the way.
“There was a little more buzz when you walk out to the field and start playing catch and getting into the bullpen. It was fun,” Nationals starter Erick Fedde said of the crowd in Jupiter. “It reminded me of older times. I’m just really happy to be back out there with fans.”
All 30 major league teams will allow fans to attend their spring training games in accordance with local coronavirus ordinances. All will employ a pod setup, with physical distance built in between occupied pods of seats. Masks will be required for all those in attendance.
The percentage of full capacity allowed at any given stadium is dictated by local guidelines and will range from 9 percent capacity at the San Francisco Giants’ Scottsdale, Ariz., facility to 28 percent capacity at the Minnesota Twins’ stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. The Giants will allow the fewest fans per game with 1,000. The Chicago Cubs, based in Mesa, Ariz., will welcome the largest number of fans per game with just more than 3,600 — 22 percent of Sloan Field’s capacity.
MLB reported “strong demand” for the available tickets, and several teams reported their available seats sold out in hours — or in some cases even minutes. Boston Red Sox tickets sold out within hours of being made available Friday. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies had a similar experience. Cardinals tickets are sold out, too. A Nationals spokeswoman said Sunday that they have mostly lawn and picnic table seats remaining, an indication that most bowl seats sold quickly.
Other than the 11,500 fans allowed in Texas’s Globe Life Park during last year’s National League Championship Series and World Series, no one has been allowed to attend MLB games since around this time last spring, before the pandemic shut spring training down. Only about 20 percent of the sport’s total spring training seating capacity will be available to fans this spring.
While a smaller corps of reporters traveled to spring training this year than normal, most teams will maintain somewhat regular television broadcast schedules. Several teams already have already released those schedules, many including 10 to 12 games.
The Nationals did not list any television broadcasts on the spring training schedule they released, though they expect MASN to announce a schedule of its own that will include a few games. Exactly how many games MASN will broadcast remains unclear.
The five major league games that were broadcast to their home markets Sunday included fans behind home plate, polite applause and all the usual trappings. Fans laid out in the grass beyond the outfield fence to watch the Chicago White Sox play the Milwaukee Brewers at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., and spread out blankets to see the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers visit the Oakland Athletics in Mesa. A Yankees fan held up a sign when Aaron Judge took his first at-bat in Tampa.
“Finally,” it read. “Court is back in session.”
It was the third inning in Tampa before the Yankees’ public address announcer reminded those in attendance to pull up their masks. In Jupiter, where masks were prevalent but far from omnipresent, one of the retirees that staffs Roger Dean Stadium was tasked with reminding fans to pull up their masks. Some attendees responded by politely lifting their masks back over their mouths and noses. Others were more begrudging. The protocols will have to be honed, enforcement practiced.
But what was clear Sunday was that those on the field probably were as happy to see fans as those fans were to be there. No more piped-in crowd noise. No more awkward silence. Plenty of enthusiastic heckling.
“Last year, we missed them. Then you got used to the surroundings and not having them, but you always wished they were there,” Astros Manager Dusty Baker said after his team played in front of a sellout crowd of around 1,500 at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, where the Nationals will play their first home game Monday. “It was great having fans in the stands.”
Dougherty contributed from Jupiter, Fla.