The baseball season arrives at an ideal time of year, rousing the memory of annual renewal with the verdant scent of a freshly mowed outfield. Bleachers beckon us with the promise of a lazy escape, the chance to lounge in the spring sunshine with a juicy hot dog in one hand and an ice-cold beer in the other. We watch the ball whizz around the diamond. We listen for that familiar crack of the bat, that pop of the glove. We chat with friends, we joke with strangers, we bask in the camaraderie of the shared moment.
But not this year, at least not any time soon, thanks to the coronavirus outbreak now sweeping the globe. Adding to the steadily rising tally of notifications from conferences, school districts, performance spaces, and sports organizations — basically anyone in the business of convening large numbers of human beings — Major League Baseball announced on March 12 that it would be cancelling the remainder of spring training and postponing opening day by at least two weeks. Then on March 16, the league declared that the season would not start until mid-May at the earliest.
This news demonstrates how baseball is paradoxically both trivial and vital: trivial in that it must be unceremoniously sacrificed to protect our physical health, but vital in that our mental health suffers as the sport is snatched away from us. We now turn our attention to a pandemic that will certainly kill some of us, while we wish we could instead just watch a game that brings us joy.
Under normal circumstances, baseball can serve as a pleasant diversion from tedious or painful realities in our everyday lives. Yet the harshest reality we currently face has deprived us of this particular distraction when we need it the most. In times of stress and fear and worry, when we feel threatened or unsafe, we are able to draw strength and resolve from our connections with other people. Unfortunately, our ability to maintain those connections has rapidly eroded this month, and the disappearance of sports from our lives factors prominently into that erosion.
In more concrete terms, baseball’s indefinite delay translates into lost revenue across the board — not just in ticket sales and television deals, but for workers who manage concession stands and souvenir booths, transportation networks that facilitate stadium access, and restaurants and bars that capitalize on the extra excitement and foot traffic. Game day fuels an entire sub-economy.
Everyone who has a financial stake in MLB can only wait and wonder when the whole system will start gearing back up again. Huddles are happening, in conference rooms or (more likely) on conference calls, but these surely feature more hand-wringing and resigned sighs than confident planning about how to proceed when the gates finally open and the bleachers fill once more with the hot dog-munching, beer-quaffing masses.
For the San Francisco Giants, the preferred time to strategize about attendance was months ago, when front office conversations covered marketing campaigns, not guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Back then the team was talking to season-ticket holders, not public health officials.
“We do focus groups early, early, early in the off-season,” the Giants’ Faham Zakariaei told SF Weekly on March 4, speaking for an article about promotional giveaways that was scheduled for publication this week, before the coronavirus crisis rendered such considerations moot.
The senior director of promotions and special events had gone on to say, “We bring in close to 150 fans and we just kind of talk about the previous year, we talk about the upcoming year, with the goal of identifying some new ideas.” Zakariaei described how this process helped shape a 2020 giveaway lineup headlined by such items as the “Buster Hugs” Neck Pillow and the Lou Seal “Flipper” Hat — cute and fun products whose fate now sits in limbo along with everything else Giants-related.
Over the weekend, SF Weekly checked back in with Zakariaei, who reported that his organization’s situation remains in flux. Simultaneously, the CDC issued a nation-wide advisory recommending the postponement or cancelation of events consisting of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. This announcement was followed by news reports on Monday that residents in at least six Bay Area counties should shelter in place, effective March 17. None of this is what you want to hear if your job is to fill Oracle Park, a stadium with 40,000-plus seats.
The task of drawing an audience in San Francisco was challenging enough before the specter of COVID-19 loomed over its hilly landscape. Competition for customers runs thick in this town, a mad scramble for the disposable income of tourists and, increasingly, the tech-sector nouveau riche.
On the playing field of local business, however, the Giants have had a distinct advantage: legacy. This is reflected in their nostalgia-heavy slate of promotional giveaways, and evident in Zakariaei’s comments before the season got flipped upside-down.
“It’s been something that we’ve been able to build and create,” he had said about the team’s impressive ability to fill the seats. “It’s not something that happens overnight, but I think that’s why we’ve been able to maintain large crowds for a long time.”
Sadly, that forward momentum which took so long to establish has quickly ground to a halt, and now the Giants’ majestic stadium will sit empty and desolate for the foreseeable future. Camaraderie in the bleachers will have to wait.