For New York sports fans, and even many casual observers, Mike Piazza’s eighth-inning home run to beat the Braves on September 21, 2001, ten days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, was a cathartic moment. A lugubrious crowd roused itself in the seventh-inning stretch when Liza Minnelli took the field and belted out a legendary version of “New York, New York” while wearing a fire captain’s cap. Shortly after, Piazza sent a ball over the fence and into the night and the crowd erupted, reveling in the common pleasure of watching the home team win a ballgame.
As Major League Baseball contemplates how to start a belated season, fans already know that there won’t be any ecstatic communion between players and 50,000 spectators, living vicariously through their deeds. For a preview of the new experience of sports fandom, they can look instead to Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, which began its season last week, with strict new rules. Players’ temperatures are to be taken twice daily. The umpires, and all non-uniformed personnel, must wear masks and gloves, and players who show symptoms will be immediately quarantined. The league is prepared to shut down for three weeks if a player or coach tests positive. And there are no fans—except for cardboard cutouts placed in the seats to “cheer” the home team on. In a particularly surreal touch, the cardboard fans wear masks.
MLB has been discussing similar plans, including no fans, monitoring players for fever, and keeping players away from their families and the public. All the games will be played in Arizona, at about a dozen venues. Federal infectious-disease official Anthony Fauci suggested that allowing fans might be possible at some point, but he emphasized that “the virus . . . determines what the timetable is” and opined that “it’s more likely that you’re going to have more of a television baseball than a spectator baseball.”
Notwithstanding that the game is “television baseball” for most fans under normal conditions, the players are unaccustomed to empty stadiums. And even with a crowd, the nature of baseball is such that the crowd varies in intensity, from a gentle buzz accompanying a mid-summer snoozer to raucous foot-stomping and deafening roars during late-season rivalry games. A baseball crowd takes on a personality and becomes an undeniable element of the game itself.
Baseball is not the only sport grappling with the idea of playing without spectators. The National Football League’s broadcast of its annual draft enjoyed high ratings from a sports-starved public, but the show’s content was a montage of living rooms and basements. Many athletes have expressed concern at the prospect of games without fans. Basketball superstar LeBron James said that he would refuse to play in empty arenas: “I play for my teammates, and I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about.” Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins told ESPN that he thought it might be “kind of refreshing, a breath of fresh air” to play without “all of the smoke and the fire,” though he was decidedly in the minority of players who commented publicly. “Games without fans, they’re sad, in a way,” said Bob Bradley, head coach of the Los Angeles Football Club of Major League Soccer. “But we’re also in unprecedented times and so I know that the kind of discussions that lead towards restarting without fans, that’s still a way to reconnect, and it will be a challenge for sure.”
One revealing aspect of the Covid-19 crisis is the relative ease with which the public has adjusted to life without sports, given their prominence before the pandemic. There have been attempts to fill the void with broadcasts of e-sports and celebrity video game tournaments, but these haven’t captured wide attention. Horse racing looks poised to begin a relatively full schedule without spectators at the bigger, well-known venues, and in some places the racing (and wagering) never stopped. But horse racing depends on online betting and survives as a gambling medium as much as a sport. On Friday, the mixed-martial arts promotors UFC, owned by casino owners for much of its existence, announced the first of three fight cards in Florida, without paid attendance, instead relying on pay-per-view and gambling.
“A game without fans has no soul,” said Bradley, in response to his league’s tentative plan to introduce “MLS Studio games,” played in empty soccer stadiums. Shared experiences are hard to come by in our new, socially distanced reality; it remains to be seen if something like that same pleasure can be experienced by fans who watch alone or in small groups, or by players performing in empty spaces. No young fans will take foul balls home as unforgettable mementos of a special day at the park. Players won’t sign scraps of paper offered by devotees who will treasure the scrawl. If a game-winning home run flies into the bleacher seats and there are no fans to see or hear it, will it still provide the same thrill?
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