You won’t forget a special moment on the baseball field if you peek through the fence to see it happen.
In 2020, when ticket stubs are nonexistent, we set out to find baseball purity without having a crowd to follow. Watching a broadcasted game is far more convenient than literally peeking through the cracks, of course, but with the Coors Field gates locked indefinitely, we must actively seek the game with the same underlying premise.
In 2020, baseball purity is based solely in our own interpretations. You can’t follow the crowd’s interpretation because there isn’t a crowd. There are no party decks to take our eyes off the game, concourse concessions to distract from the action, or club level ‘premium’ status that reasons something exclusive.
The stadiums are shrouded in newfound mystique, while the souls of baseball enthusiasts are desperate for fulfillment.
The mystique itself, however, just might be the best fulfillment of all.
Finding the fulfillment
My college pitching career led me to Phoenix, Arizona for a few years beginning in 2015. I was aware of the Arizona Fall League, but not of the life-altering experience from a game in person.
In 2015, a crowd below ten percent capacity would watch Kyle Freeland carve through top prospects. A general admission ticket could put you right behind home for a 103 MPH Ray Black fastball in 2014 with nobody seated in front of you. Gary Sanchez hit a ball up the outfield lawn at Salt River Fields in 2015; when it landed, nobody was there to pick it up. 2016 Fall League spectators may have seen some of the final non-televised games of Cody Bellinger’s career.
If you missed one of those moments, it would disappear. There was no replay on the scoreboard. The highlights weren’t on television that night. It took laser-sharp awareness to appreciate each detail, but in an empty ballpark full of premier action, the baseball was so good that you couldn’t look away.
There was nothing else to look away to.
The crowds were seldom over 600 people. Spectators seemed to delight in the mystique of the Fall League even more than they did the warm October and November air. All 600 were aptly spread out, and ticket stubs that read ‘General Admission’ gave them the freedom to do so anywhere. Many would exchange a head nod and a smile when someone new came to sit a few seats away. The awareness was shared with a devoted community of baseball fans, and the stadium lights shined down on an absolute paradise.
I was used to seeing Salt River Fields sold out in spring training, but suddenly I wondered: Do I actually prefer this place empty?
Nobody can enjoy any such moment at a ballpark in 2020—but every radio call and television broadcast this year reminds me of some of the most pure baseball I have ever seen.
I love empty ballparks, but I really love full ballparks
Be advised: I do not wish to identity as a ‘get off my lawn’ baseball fan, nor a selfish person for cherishing low attendance. A packed ballpark is incredible.
Our very own Renee Dechert talked about the 2016 Hartford Yard Goats and their suffering through low attendance as a new ballpark was under construction. It is far easier to get excited to play with thousands of people in the stands, and those Yard Goats—Yency Almonte, David Dahl, Kyle Freeland, Germán Márquez, Ryan McMahon, Antonio Senzatela, and Raimel Tapia (to name a few)—have ample reason to loathe empty seats.
If Nolan Arenado’s Father’s Day cycle had nobody in the stands, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as electrifying. If nobody cheered in the 2007 tiebreaker when Matt Holliday touched home, maybe it would feel like he never touched home at all. Fans clearly add something to the experience, and for players and fans alike, empty parks can be excruciating to a baseball soul.
But for at least 2020, the baseball soul has a new way to express fulfillment: that same mystique of lesser-attended Arizona Fall League games has taken the feature stage.
Let’s enjoy it for 2020
It requires additional effort, but that’s exactly what heightened awareness calls for. Baseball purity is always around us, but that purity is found from not following the crowd and recognizing the special moments for ourselves.
We do have the sports highlights on television this time around, filtering key moments. We’ve got subtle distractions (or perhaps not so subtle) with artificial crowd noise and cardboard cutouts. We’ve got broadcasters and producers directing our eyes and social media accounts fighting for our attention, but the playing field is leveled for every single fan. Each pitch reminds us of the stillness, the calm—the peace—that this game can bring.
We all are peeking through the fence from afar, and we may remember it unlike anything else.