‘How Weird Is All of This?’ Fans Return to a Warped Ballpark Experience


ARLINGTON, Texas — For 54 consecutive years Mike Amodei attended at least one Dodgers game a season, beginning with a Sandy Koufax start in 1966. Nothing would ever stop him from keeping his streak alive, he thought — until a once-in-a-century pandemic put it in jeopardy.

Though Major League Baseball has managed to carry out a 60-game regular season and an expanded postseason, fans were not permitted to attend games for months because of the coronavirus.

“I thought it was over,” Amodei said from the lower concourse at the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Field. “And then this happened.”

“This,” to clarify, is the National League Championship Series, the first games that fans have been allowed to attend since spring training, before the pandemic struck. Amodei, 63, seized the opportunity.

But the lack of a true home team is one more quirk in the unusual fan experience at these playoffs. While a few N.F.L. teams, NASCAR and some college football teams have allowed fans back into their familiar stadiums — including the Dallas Cowboys’ domed stadium just down the road, which has hosted more than 20,000 people in each of the team’s three home games — M.L.B. invited the regular followers of postseason teams to irregular locations.

“It’s got a kind of Super Bowl-ish feel to it,” said Chris Harkey, a Braves fan from Asheboro, N.C., who flew in with his wife, Lauren Breedlove, to watch Game 3. “It’s exciting with the mix of different fans.”

Throughout the N.L.C.S., fans in a variety of team colors entered the stadium, which opened this year with a capacity of 40,000 spectators but has yet to be filled. Tickets were sold in blocks of four, spaced apart from other blocks. The unavailable seats had plastic straps attached to them, and the first several rows were blocked off.

During batting practice at the first game of the series, fans charged to those front rows trying to retrieve balls hit over the fence, clustering in proximity to one another. For later games, tarps were placed over those seats, and yellow caution tape limited access for ball-seeking fans.

Fans generally wore masks and often maintained distance from one another. But as each game wore on and the beer flowed, some masks fell down around necks as the shouting increased.

After Game 4, a 10-2 Atlanta victory, bands of seemingly drunken Braves fans, bombinating their droning tomahawk chant, roamed the area around the stadium as if it were 2019, and a nearby hotel lobby was dotted with groups of unmasked fans in their reverie.

Some fans donned jerseys of other M.L.B. teams, too. The Mariners, Astros, Angels, Orioles, Rockies, Brewers and even the old Montreal Expos were all represented at the N.L.C.S.

Pittard, the rancher from Novice, and his brother, Mark Pittard, wore Cubs jerseys in honor of their favorite team. Mark Pittard noted how strange it was that the first game they attended at the Rangers’ new American League park was a playoff matchup between National League teams.

The souvenir stores were open, but the Dodgers and Braves fans looked more like museum goers as they dispassionately scanned all the Rangers gear for sale. The available Dodgers and Braves merchandise amounted to two small racks of what looked like hastily produced, generic items — balls and T-shirts that said, “Globe Life Field, NLCS, 2020, Arlington Texas,” and “World Series, Arlington Texas” — neutral gray shirts in a neutral building with a massive gray roof.

“It looks like Petco Park and a big mall had a baby,” said Will Hicks, 41, an investor from San Diego, who wore a Padres mask, Padres jersey and Padres cap, while his brother Sam, 35, an Astros fan, munched on a two-foot hot dog. They own season tickets to the Padres at the elegant Petco Park in San Diego, the A.L.C.S. site.

“How weird is all of this?” Will Hicks said. “We’re at a game in Texas with our dad, who is a Dodgers fan, and Sam is listening to the Astros game back at Petco. Only in 2020.”

The atmosphere inside was similar to that of a Mets game in April, circa 2011 — about a quarter filled, with only die-hards in attendance. But after a long season without fans, the people in the real uniforms were delighted to have paying customers wearing any shirt at all.

“It’s filled me with a sense of excitement, especially in such a difficult time,” Braves third baseman Johan Camargo said through an interpreter. “It’s like a jolt of energy, and we are eternally grateful for that.”

And Harkey and Breedlove, the couple from North Carolina, were happy to provide vocal support to their team. They had to buy four tickets to Game 3, but they did not give away or sell the other two.

“You don’t want some stranger sitting there coughing all over you,” Harkey said. “But if the Braves make the World Series, I’m definitely coming back.”



Source link