Patrick Saunders, recently put on furlough from the Denver Post, pursues an interesting thought experiment: how much different would an individual baseball game be without fans? He looks to the first and last time it was done, April 29, 2015, for some perspective.
On that day, the Baltimore Orioles hosted the Chicago White Sox in a stadium that was closed to the public due to civil unrest in the Baltimore area. Referencing old player interviews from that time, Saunders draws the right conclusion that baseball is done for the fans and players play for the fans. Even players like the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado, who Saunders quotes as saying, "If it's safe, I'm in," will likely miss the juice that comes from playing in front of tens of thousands of people.
Leaving aside the fact that anyone who has played a regular season game in Miami knows something of what it's like to play a game without fans (or that it’s done at least a few times each year in European soccer), Saunders leaves one key difference between the situation in Baltimore and supposed 2020 (or even 2021) games played without fans.
In 2015, the game was played in the interest of completing the schedule, but fans were not allowed in due in no small part to the fact that the city couldn't spare dozens (hundreds?) of police officers for the game. The fan-less experience was a rarity and, to date, is still the only time it's happened, which is precisely why many players said afterwards they weren't sure the game should've been played at all.
Were games played without fans in 2020, it would be every single game, not simply one afternoon game in one city. The goal of such action would be the same—to protect the safety of the public—but the decision making process surrounding it would be much different. It wouldn't be done to complete the schedule, but to have a schedule at all. Fan-less games wouldn't come across as frivolous considering what's going on outside the stadiums, but they would happen because MLB and the MLBPA came together and decided that it would be the safe and helpful thing to do for a populace searching for some slice of normalcy in a world so bereft of it.
Again, I believe Saunders comes to the right conclusion in his analysis, but I felt this perhaps subtle difference warranted mention. We might overestimate “the power of sports to heal” in the midst of a global catastrophe, especially since many of us will be (or at least have friends and loved ones who are) devastated by this virus in ways that mere entertainment cannot paper over. And the players who play for the fans will surely miss the energy from the stands.
But for many, baseball is more than something we put on TV, like a favorite sitcom or guilty pleasure movie. In the words of the great Ernie Harwell,
Baseball? It’s just a game-as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It’s a sport, business-and sometimes even religion.
If you start to wonder if it’s worth it to bring baseball back, this is part of the reason why. No, baseball won’t fix these monumental problems. But for three hours a night we can see that life can and does go on. The empty stands will be a reminder that things are not as they should be, but the full field will be a reminder that one day they just might get close.
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If you're reading this site, odds are at least 50/50 that you also read sites like FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus. And, like most industries in this strange moment, they are struggling. It turns out sports are crucial to sports websites keeping their operations running. And while other industries and, by extension, far more people are being hit scary hard right now, it's still distressing to see some beloved sites struggle. The main SBNation site (but not team sites) had to furlough workers this week, too.
My point is this: thank you so much for sticking with Purple Row right now. We're doing our best to provide some baseball and Rockies related content but know that we always do it for you, the readers. Stick with us (and maybe give FanGraphs and BP a few clicks today while you're at it, and consider tossing the Denver Post a digital subscription to help them keep the lights on).
You know how you always hear that disclaimer "without expressed written consent of Major League Baseball" at some point during a Rockies broadcast? That's more than just a set up for a great gag, but a very real restriction that protects the financial interests of various professional sports leagues. According to this article, everyone is working together to bend the rules for the benefit of YOU, the sports fan desperate for sports. So if you've been enjoying MLB Network's classic games, or the best NFL games on FOX Sports, well, thank some rule-breakers.