“Spitballing” is a column by Nathan Ackerman about Major League Baseball.
The second pitch a Philadelphia Phillie saw in 2021 Spring Training was an opposite-field leadoff home run by center fielder Adam Haseley.
It was, naturally, the Phillies’ first game of Spring Training, Sunday against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. Haseley’s homer wasn’t a mammoth blast, but it wasn’t a wall-scraper either. It found its way to the lawn 353 feet away from home plate, exit velocity 94 miles per hour, 32-degree launch angle.
I got excited, and not just because I’m a Phillies fan longing for a victor to emerge from my team’s center field competition. I got excited because fans got excited.
That’s right — fans. At the stadium. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. Some fans cheered, some probably rolled their eyes in disgust. And some chased after the home run ball, in doing so, venturing outside their white-chalk-outlined squares on the lawn beyond the left field wall, infiltrating those of other patrons.
To be clear, I have no problem with this whatsoever. Anyone who does is grasping at straws. You can be sure if a Major League home run ball — Spring Training, regular season or World Series — ever found its way anywhere near my vicinity, I’m chasing that thing, white squares be damned. I’d put good money on the fact that no coronavirus was transmitted in that seconds-long interaction between the different pods chasing a souvenir at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Something else happened later in that same game. In the sixth inning, after my Fightin Phils’ 1-0 lead had turned into a thrashing favoring the Tigers, a fan was ejected from the stadium for refusing to wear his mask. Actually, he got ejected because he tossed beer on the cop who requested he wear his mask, but the point stands.
Both of these events got me thinking.
In case you didn’t notice, 2020 baseball was different — and I don’t mean that in a positive way. It was short and it was altered, but most of all, it was quiet. It was sad. Fans give baseball an energy that cardboard cutouts simply can’t replicate.
The first few games of Spring Training have been somewhat jarring. A fielder makes a nice play, a pitcher throws a nasty pitch or a hitter barrels up a ball and people react. There’s sound. You see the fans. You hear them. Whereas piped-in crowd noise initially felt out of place in the early goings of the 2020 season, real, human cheers and boos now feel jarring. It’s magical.
But if enough fans refuse to abide by the rules and feel a burning obligation to use this opportunity as a platform for ridiculous protest, that magic will come to a screeching halt. And no one — not even the Covidiots — wants that.
Let’s not mess it up.
Teams are beginning to open up their Spring Training facilities to fans and many plan to include a limited number through the gates once the regular season begins April 1. But fans in the stands this year will not be a foregone conclusion, rather, they’ll be an ongoing experiment, one that local governments and politicians can strike down at any moment if they feel it’s necessary, whether or not it really is.
By all means, we should have fans in the stands. Not a full stadium’s worth — obviously — but a few. Cases are down, vaccines are rolling out and with proper social distancing and other protective measures in place and enforced, the risk of transmission, especially at outdoor stadiums, is low.
I can’t force anyone to like the rules, nor will I try. All I ask is that we, as fans, recognize that if we want to be able to return to our favorite stadiums this year — and continue to do so on a somewhat regular basis — it’s largely up to us. If we never want to hear another billionaire owner cry poor because “fAnS wErEn’T aT oUr GaMeS tHiS yEaR,” it’s at least somewhat up to us.
The fans who chased after Haseley’s home run aren’t the ones who will spoil this experiment. I bring them up only because that video, which was the first highlight I saw of 2021 Spring Training and the first time I saw social distancing squares outlined in the crowd of a baseball stadium, forced me to think of how we got here in the first place. How we got to the point where a fan roaming a few feet to chase after a home run, a practice that’s been repeated thousands of times since the sport’s inception, can possibly be noteworthy. And I settled on the type of person who gets arrested because it’s too inconvenient to wear a piece of fabric over part of his face.
I think there’s a link there.
Moral of the story: Don’t be that person. Baseball is a better game with fans in the stands. You may not like the fact that your heckling might be muffled by a mask or that you can’t high-five the fan in the seat next to you unless they’re from your own household. But it’s what we’ve got, and it’s a whole lot better than last year.
So please, just go with it. Fans in the stands are a luxury that, hopefully, we’ll never take for granted again. If we can figure out a way to make it work, you can get back to cheering on your Dodgers, I can get back to booing my Phillies and baseball can return just a little bit closer to normal.
“Spitballing” runs every Tuesday.