TAMPA, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 28: General view of the stadium during a moment of silence for Hank … [+]
Spring training games have officially begun across Major League Baseball in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. A sense of euphoria could be felt by fans and ball players who are desperately looking for a sense of normalcy. Even with the return of familiar sights and sounds that accompany spring baseball games in Arizona and Florida, there are constant reminders that we are still in a life-or-death battle against COVID-19.
Fans have finally returned to ballparks, but only in limited quantities. At George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, attendance has been set at 25% of seating capacity. The meticulous spring training home of the New York Yankees will host approximately 2,800 fans per game instead of its usual sellout crowds. Games could be five, seven, or nine innings in length through March 13th and seven or nine innings from March 14th through the end of spring training according to the YES Network’s first 2021 broadcast of the Yankees.
Besides the mandatory face coverings always worn by fans except when eating and drinking, plexiglass serves as a buffer between the first row of seats and the playing field. The Yankees are selling tickets in pods of two to six seats with a heavy emphasis on social distancing. In other spring training ballparks where lawn seats are an attractive option for fans, boxes of white or yellow chalk are outlined on the grass.
Even though these circumstances are less than ideal, the advancements in technology have been extraordinary on a wide variety of levels. Mobile ticketing and cashless transactions have always been strongly encouraged, but now it is a necessity. Exceptional broadcast work is being done behind the scenes by several television and radio networks. The Yankees’ broadcast on the YES Network against the Toronto Blue Jays featured three commentators in different locations with only one in the ballpark.
The new spring training experience has sadly affected rivalries and scheduling. The Yankees will not compete against the Boston Red Sox or New York Mets. They will play a 28-game schedule exclusively on the west coast of Florida facing five opponents within an hour’s drive of their facility. The long road trips to Fort Myers (Red Sox) and Port St. Lucie (Mets) would sometimes require split squads and overnight stays in hotels. Instead, the Yankees will get a healthy serving of games against the Philadelphia Phillies (eight), Detroit Tigers (seven), Toronto Blue Jays (seven), Baltimore Orioles (three), and Pittsburgh Pirates (three).
TAMPA, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 28: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees interacts with the fans during … [+]
Conversations of interest at the outset of spring training have focused on conditioning, poor personal performances last season, and the proliferation of injuries. The pandemic led to interruptions in training and the inability of ball players to access facilities and equipment. Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. has been the subject of much criticism after returning to summer camp last season out of shape and overweight. A 21-year-old destined for greatness, Guerrero, Jr. looked like an entirely different ball player as he stepped to the plate against the Yankees in his first spring training game. The fans in attendance clearly noticed Guerrero, Jr. is in outstanding shape after losing 42 pounds this offseason.
During the YES Network’s broadcast, manager Aaron Boone was asked how he was going to handle the Yankees’ pitching after an abbreviated 60-game schedule. Besides the injury concerns, Boone knows the Yankees will need depth when it comes to their pitching staff beyond Gerrit Cole. He thinks it might be difficult for a starting pitcher to eclipse 200 innings based on the shortened 2020 season and inability of pitchers to build their endurance during the pandemic. Boone said the Yankees would need to be creative over the first month of the season with their pitching staff. A six-man rotation might be a possibility, but Boone would not commit either way.
Team chemistry has become a concern for Boone and the Yankees. Due to COVID-19 protocols, position ball players are currently training at George M. Steinbrenner Field while pitchers and catchers are down the road at the player development complex. The ball players are missing out on opportunities for camaraderie and team building. Boone is splitting his time between both facilities as he would like to see 40 ball players who will factor into the Yankees’ plans this season at one location within a week.
The presence of fans at spring training games is a shot of adrenaline for Major League Baseball. The New York Yankees know fans are the lifeblood of their franchise regardless of how many can currently enter a ballpark. Their absence last season was greatly felt in the Bronx and makes you wonder aloud how many victories the Yankees could have had if the Bleacher Creatures were leading roll call in the outfield. Let us hope a couple of thousand fans at a February spring training game in Tampa can lead to sell-out crowds at maximum capacity someday soon at Yankee Stadium and ballparks across North America.
Wayne G. McDonnell, Jr., M.B.A. has been involved in education, media, coaching, and finance for two decades. He achieved the rank of Clinical Professor of Sport