Spring training marked the return of fans at Major League exhibition games in Florida and Arizona, a welcome sight for managers and players after 2020’s shortened regular season played without paying customers at ballparks across the U.S. Limited ticket sales have been popular during this exhibition season as teams adjust to new rules and other novelties, like playing in front of a live audience.
The Chicago Cubs had an early taste of it Monday against the San Diego Padres during a Cactus League game in Peoria, Ariz., that drew 1,636 for a 1-0 Cubs road victory.
“It was nice other than that one guy in the upper deck who kept heckling our pitchers,” Cubs manager David Ross said with a laugh. “He was like the only guy you could hear. But in all seriousness, it was fun to see that stuff again. It was great. It was great to hear fans getting into the game.”
At Port St. Lucie, Fla., where the New York Mets opened the home Grapefruit League season this week, Mets manager Luis Rojas said it took his players a little while to get used to the scene with limited attendance.
“It’s just a different feel compared to last year,” he said. “Even before the game, the smells of food, popcorn and hot dogs, the guys were talking about it.”
Mets third baseman Jeff McNeil said the crowd of 1,223 on Tuesday against the Houston Astros was pretty subdued until he hit a second-inning homer that helped his club win the game, 2-0. The modest crowd in the 7,160 capacity Clover Park instantly got into it.
“OK, there’s the noise,” McNeil told Rojas after circling the bases and re-entering the dugout.
“He felt really good,” Rojas said. “Even at that level, when something special happens on the field you can hear the cheers. You feel the fan energy.”
In both states, teams are playing at about 20% capacity this spring after a 60-game regular season sans fans. The fan ban lasted until the National League Championship Series and World Series, after the state of Texas lifted some restrictions on large gatherings at sporting events.
Those last two rounds of the playoffs allowed baseball to sell tickets to mask-wearing fans, appropriately socially distanced, at the clip of about 11,500 in the brand-new, 40,300-seat Globe Life Field with its retractable roof. All 12 games sold out, and no instances of COVID infection were reported until Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner tested positive for the virus in the final innings of their six-game World Series victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Last season, 54 players tested positive during the regular season, as opposed to only three new positives among the 900 tests administered last week after the players reported to spring training.
As vaccinations become more widespread, fans seem willing to return to arenas and ballparks. The NHL’s Arizona Coyotes paved the way in Maricopa County for spring training attendance by averaging about 2,500 fans for their first 15 of 28 home games, beginning Jan. 14 at Gila River Arena in Glendale, which seats 17,125 for hockey.
Their high was 3,237 when the Coyotes opened the upper bowl on Feb. 13 for an overtime loss during an unprecedented seven-game stretch against the St. Louis Blues. The Coyotes have now played in front of the expanded capacity three times, selling tickets that start at $25.
The NBA’s Suns followed with 1,500 fans each for three home games at the recently renovated Phoenix Suns Arena downtown, doubling capacity to 3,000 as of Feb. 16.
Thus, when the Arizona Diamondbacks put 2,200 tickets a game on sale for the 11,000-seat Salt River Fields in Scottsdale on Feb. 20, the entire spring slate of 14 games was sold out in less than 24 hours. Similarly, tickets for the other 14 teams training in the Phoenix area were snatched up, including the defending-champion Dodgers at Camelback Ranch, which they share with the Chicago White Sox and normally seats 13,000. That facility is also in Glendale, about a mile from Gila River Arena.
“We really missed the fans of Arizona,” said Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, whose team is the only one in the Cactus League that plays its regular-season games locally, at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix. “We knew you were out there, and we know the support you’ve given us in a different way. But to see you back out there in the seats and to hear those cheers was real nice for all of us, was pretty special.
“We got used to the quietness of a game and being able to say something across a field, but we know now there are going to be fans in the stands, and we want to continue to make them proud.”
The D-backs are still working on a plan to accommodate some fans at 48,519-seat pop-top Chase Field for an 81-game regular season schedule that begins with the home opener against the Cincinnati Reds on April 9.
There’s sure to be fans in the stands on some basis at the 30 big-league stadiums this season, although the five teams based in California have yet to be cleared by health officials in a state where fans also have been unable to attend pro football, basketball or hockey games this season.
“We’re working on the final details,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday during an appearance in Long Beach. “We’ve been working very closely with Major League Baseball and others across the spectrum.”
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon seemed content that his team hosted 1,926 fans for Wednesday’s victory over the Texas Rangers at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
“It just shows how important [fans] are to the game and the industry,” he said. “Even with a smattering, the vibe was completely different. Something stirs within you that doesn’t happen without them being there.”