The waiting is over. Baseball is back. Fans are not.
After a four-month hiatus that saw the cancellation of more than 100 games, the long-awaited start of the 2020 Major League abbreviated 60-game season is here. Better late than never, as the national pastime offers us a much-needed distraction from the national crises we’re facing.
It was an Opening Day like none other as the COVID-19 pandemic loomed over the game. The deadly coronavirus continuous to throw us curveball after curveball, and we, like batters, have to make numerous adjustments.
On Friday, July 24, there were many adjustments to be made as the Texas Rangers inaugurated Globe Life Field, their new $1.2 billion state-of-the-art, climate-control stadium, when they played host to the Colorado Rockies.
Baseball may be back, but it is definitely not the same. Had the season not been delayed, the Rangers’ July 24 game would have been against the Los Angeles Angels, their 54th game at Globe Life Field. The cancellations of these games included series with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels, and the World Champion Washington Nationals. All of these games most certainly would have been sold out, generating millions of dollars.
The opening of the new ballpark this year was to be an economic home run. Instead it has been a strikeout. An empty stadium does not generate revenue.
Some of the empty sections throughout the stadium were covered with tarps that featured sponsor logos. There were also sponsor names/logos stenciled on the front of both dugouts that can be visible on television. It is a way the team can recoup some of the revenue lost due to no attendance at games.
Outside the stadium, there were no full parking lots, no traffic jams, no tailgating parties, no small airplanes flying above with advertising banners, no public safety officers directing traffic, and no one trying to sell or purchase tickets to the game.
Inside the stadium, there we no ushers, no ticket takers, no magnetic schedule giveaways that fans normally receive on Opening Day, no vendors for hot dogs, peanuts, cotton candy, or beer; no wave; and no dot race. All concessions and dining areas were empty, even the 118 suites. There was no flyover. Not even Rangers Captain, the team’s mascot, was there.
However, there was stadium security and media. Media presence at games is extremely limited. Due to health and safety protocols, all media interviews with Rangers and visiting players are conducted virtually via Zoom conferences.
On the field, the catcher was not the only one wearing a mask. All players are required to wear face masks when not playing. Players will no longer be putting chewing tobacco or sunflower seeds in their mouths since spitting is not allowed. Also, each pitcher now has to carry his own rosin bag to the mound when he’s called to pitch.
Still, there was a game.
At precisely 6:30 p.m., Rangers public address announcer Chuck Morgan, sitting in his new perch behind home plate, announced to an empty 40,300-seat stadium, “It’s baseball time in Texas.” His booming baritone echoed throughout the 1.8 million square-foot space. It had been 299 days since the Rangers last played a regular season game.
Morgan, who has been the PA voice of the Rangers for decades, was one of the first to arrive at the stadium on Opening Day, as he appeared on many of the local morning news programs talking about the Rangers’ new home and the return of baseball.
For months, Morgan and his staff have been working on making the game as normal as possible for players, including the walk-up music when they come to bat. For the viewers and listening audiences, there is piped-in crowd noise that makes it feel like there are fans in the stands. You can hear the cheering, the organ, the voice of some hot dog vendors, and also Zonk banging his drum to fire up the crowd. One thing I didn’t hear was boos.
Morgan’s voice reverberated throughout the brand-new park as he introduced players while crowd noise filtered in from the stadium’s speakers. The roar of the crowd grew louder as the Rangers scored their first run. His job is to create the feel of a normal baseball game when everything is far from normal.
The PA voice of the Rangers pointed out that the new stadium is not complete because it is missing the most important part of the home — the fans.
“It won’t be complete until I see you here making noise, eating some hot dogs and peanuts, and drinking a cold one,” he said on his Facebook page. “We will do all we can to carry the Ranger flag for you until we are allowed to have you here in person. We will try, but we can’t replace your noise, your passion, and your emotion and love for this game.”
I woke up to Morgan’s booming voice that morning as my bedside talking alarm clock. The Rangers giveaway promotion a few years back told me, “It’s baseball time in Texas.”
This was my 20th consecutive year being at a Rangers ballpark on Opening Day. The first thing I noticed as I walked into the stadium was the more than 2,700 fans in the form of cardboard cutouts along the lower level behind home plate and the Rangers dugout. There was also the traditional red, white, and blue bunting along the rails that adorns stadiums on Opening Day.
Among the cardboard faces present at the Rangers’ home opener were President George W. Bush and wife Laura Bush, Gov. Greg Abbott, and Rangers Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. There were also other noticeable sports figures from the other local professional teams.
Earlier this month, the Rangers began offering DoppelRangers, cardboard cutouts with fans’ faces on them that will hang out in the stands during games to simulate a large crowd. The money from the $50 purchase goes to the Rangers Foundation.
Sitting in the outfield stands hours before the game, I saw some of the Rangers come out for their pregame warmups and calisthenics. They were wearing black T-shirts with some writing on them. I reached for my binoculars for a better look. There were two different kinds of shirts. One had the words “Black Lives Matter,” and the other showed a diverse group of hands gripping the handle of a baseball bat with the words “Together We Stand United.” On the back was a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that read, “Darkness cannot drive out the darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
I knew this was going to be a special pregame ceremony, and it was. Prior to the game, there was a moment of silence to honor the victims of racial injustice and COVID-19. The stadium’s two large video boards showed a video that the Rangers players made addressing the issue of racial injustice in the country and how many of them feel about it and what they can do to bring about change.
While players of both teams were lined up on the foul lines following the introductions and prior to Charley Pride’s singing the national anthem, each player reached down to grab hold of a black ribbon that was lined alongside the foul line as a show of unity.
In this unconventional season, the ceremonial first pitch was done virtually. Gov. Abbott was shown on the video boards making the throw while in front of the State Capitol in Austin.
It was now game time, and home plate umpire Jim Reynolds signaled, “Play ball!” The game time temperature was 94 degrees outside but 72 degrees inside.
Rangers starter Lance Lynn, after getting the signal from catcher Robinson Chirinos, delivered a 92 mph fastball to Rockies lead-off hitter David Dahl, who took it for a strike. The ball was then removed from the game for safekeeping because it was now part of history as the first pitch thrown at Globe Life Field.
Dahl would later make history himself, becoming the first player to register a hit at Globe Life Field when he singled to left in the top of the third inning. In the sixth, Danny Santana became the first Ranger to get a hit at the new park when he doubled to left. Later he would score the first run at GLF. There were no home runs that night.
While there were no fans at the game, there were a number of them a few yards away at Texas Live watching the game on the huge screen and enjoying the Opening Day atmosphere.
The paid attendance at Globe Life Field’s inaugural game was zero. Earlier in the day, however, about 300 fans bought tickets to enter the stadium — for the hour-long tour. The last tour was at 2 p.m. Long-time Rangers fans Judy McDonald and Judy Gaither of Fort Worth were among them.
“We have been to every Rangers Opening Day games,” McDonald said. “By coming here today I can say that I was in the park on Opening Day 2020.”
Perhaps one can say the Rangers are responsible for the shortened season. In 1972, when they inaugurated Arlington Stadium, a 14-day player strike forced the season to start in mid-April. In 1994, when they opened the then Ballpark in Arlington, the season again was cut short because of a player strike toward the end of the season that forced the cancellation of the World Series. And this year, because of the pandemic, the season is again cut short, so I guess one can blame the Rangers. It seems every time they open or inaugurate a new stadium, they do not play the complete 162-game schedule.
The Rangers won their season opener 1-0 as Lance Lynn struck out nine batters. He has the distinction of being the winning pitcher at the last game played at Globe Life Park and the first game played at Globe Life Field.
Who would have thought that on July 24, the Rangers would be undefeated? But then again, this is an unprecedented baseball season.
Still no word when fans will be allowed at the games.
Ozzie Garza has written about the Rangers for more than 20 years. He is a frequent contributor to the Fort Worth Weekly.