I love sports, I enjoy travel and I enjoy traveling for sports. While I and other inveterate sports travelers endure this pandemic, I have been looking forward to a day when sports-related travel would again dot my calendar. However, in a serendipitous and mountain-coming-to-Muhammad moment, sports-related travel came to me. The announcement by Major League Baseball that the National League Championship Series and the World Series would take place at the new Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, 30 minutes from my home, raised possibilities to reengage — in a seemingly safe and responsible way — with the thrill of live, in-person, high-level sports.
Tickets for each of these series were sold in “pods” of four, both in the primary market and on the secondary market. You could not break up the pod by, for instance, unloading two tickets. So the first order of business was organizing a pod of four people who have been behaving, and would behave, responsibly.
Major League Baseball and the stewards of Globe Life Field did a terrific job of spacing out fans, after limiting capacity to 25 percent of the roughly 40,000 that Globe Life Field can hold. Each pod of four was separated horizontally by at least four seats from any other pod, with at least a row of seats separating the pods vertically. It was in this environment that I became one of the first 10,000 people to watch a live Major League Baseball game in 2020, which doubled as the first game at which fans were allowed into Globe Life Field, when the Dodgers and Braves played Game 1 of the NLCS.
Those factors imposed on seating certainly went into the calculus of how to populate a pod of four. I needed people who were adaptable if we needed to change our environment — people who could bob and weave in case our pod was placed near misbehaving pods; people who could walk to the far side of the facility to find the right combination of food and drink; and people who were not in a position to take it out on me if the whole experience proved to be a disaster (e.g. taking a client would have been risky). Fortunately, my pod recruiting efforts were successful.
With the roof open on a gorgeous night in Texas and a pitching matchup of Max Fried versus Walker Buehler, the overriding feeling upon the first pitch was one of surreality, mixed with an adult dose of gratitude to be able to experience such a scene. It was a bit like seeing a World Series Game in 1910, and for baseball purists like me it provided an opportunity to enjoy the artistry of the game without all the gimmicks used to stir up the local fan base. The soundtrack of the game was very much the natural sounds of baseball, with occasional noise from the pods and a din of canned crowd noise that was not nearly as perceptible in-venue as it is on TV or radio.
The soundtrack of the game was very much the natural sounds of baseball, with occasional noise from the pods, and a din of canned crowd noise that was not nearly as perceptible in-venue as it is on TV or radio.
For this game, the Dodgers were the designated home team and Dodgers fans clearly outnumbered Braves fans. There were some oddities I think could be dispensed with when playing these sorts of games on a neutral field. For instance, longtime Texas Rangers stadium announcer Chuck Morgan — working from his state-of-the-art, transparent booth behind home plate — introduced the Dodgers by saying “Ladies and gentlemen, your Los Angeles Dodgers!” The stadium organist tried to get into the act as well by at one point playing “Touch Me” by The Doors, something that is not in the usual repertoire of a Texas Rangers organist.
The cooperation of the lucky 10,000 fans was uplifting. For the most part, everyone behaved, though there were two pods of Braves fans about eight rows in front of my pod that would run back and forth, masks off, high-fiving each other. Whatever your views on Globe Life Field’s mask-wearing policy, is it not possible to be grateful that you are one of 10,000 people able to watch a live baseball game, let alone one of the quality of the Dodgers versus the Braves, and obey the house rules for several hours? This being 2020, there were a few verbal grenades hurled back and forth to/from those two pods, and the ushers intervened several times to tell them to put on their masks. But other than that, it was a comfortable environment.
The common areas and passageways at Globe Life Field are vast, and so there was no crowding. Since this was Day One for everyone, there was great curiosity as to which concession stands would be open and what they would be serving. The facility is configured so that you can do a complete lap around the stadium — thus, all possible vendors were accessible and there was old-school sharing of information. “Hey where did you get that brisket sausage?” (Yes, brisket sausage was available). “Where did those cans of Stella Artois come from?” (Answer: “The little kiosk even with first base.”) The condiments for any food were pre-packaged and the variety of main course (if such a term can be applied to ballpark food) options was way more than I thought it would be, given the 25 percent limit on attendance. I was also surprised that more people chose to eat at the field, sight unseen, than not.
There are other discoveries that come from being in any sports facility for the first time. Corey Seager hit a hard shot to third and reached first base, as various pods looked to see where the official scorer’s verdict would be shown: hit or error? It appeared on the center field screen (a hit). And without being too graphic about this particular scene, the restrooms — never having been used — were immaculate. By contrast, the last postseason MLB game I had attended was at Wrigley Field, where fans have been urinating for over 100 years. At Globe Life Field, that there were two attendants in each restroom continuously cleaning the facilities helped reassure those in attendance that their safety concerns were being addressed.
Alive and Vibrant Again
My experience would be replicated two weeks later when I had several friends from Hawaii — ardent Dodger fans — announce that they would be traveling from Honolulu for World Series Games 3–5 and invited me to join them for what became the legendary Game 4 between the Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays. My comfort level in their pod was certainly boosted by the fact that they had been COVID-tested several times in the prior week, and would be again on the morning of the game in order to be able to show a negative test to get back into Hawaii. Such are the requirements of sports-related travel these days.
Globe Life Field again provided an ideal environment. This time, there was an effort to give a home field vibe to the Rays for Game 4, with Morgan bellowing: “Raise up for your Tampa Bay Rays!” Probably 80 percent of the crowd had a reaction similar to Humphrey Bogart’s line about Paris in the movie “Casablanca:” “They aren’t particularly my Tampa Bay Rays.” There was also a message on the large screen from the Clearwater (Florida) Police Department, as well as scenes from a watch party in Tampa. Both the Rays’ players and the crowd seemed unmoved by these gestures, and their utility can certainly be questioned.
There were no confrontations among pods at this game, although the ushers were again busy with two pods of Rays’ fans who tried to get away with the old mask-around-the-neck trick which, unless you had a recent tracheotomy, does not seem to serve the intended purpose.
There were no confrontations among pods at this game, although the ushers were once again busy with two pods of Rays’ fans who tried to get away with the old mask-around-the-neck trick which, unless you had a recent tracheotomy, does not seem to serve the intended purpose.
I commend Major League Baseball for the way it orchestrated the postseason competition. And to the architects and operators of Globe Life Field, bravo! Every competition held in these times gives the stewards of sport a little bit more information about how these things can be done safely and Globe Life Field is a facility fit for this unique phase of the human experience — once Justin Turner’s locker is fumigated, of course.
As for that memorable Game 4, the competition itself was remarkable, and there was one moment that made my two forays to Arlington worthwhile. As the Rays were staging their stirring comeback in the bottom of the ninth, every pod — Rays fans and Dodgers fans alike — was on its feet. The increased decibel level was not the result of canned noise from a loudspeaker but rather the type of in-person excitement you can only hear and feel by being there. After more than seven months of not experiencing that feeling, I appreciated it all the more. At the end of the World Series, Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw said the 25 percent crowd was enough to give the players a feeling of playing in front of a real crowd again. And in that moment in the ninth, the place — and the sports world — seemed alive and vibrant.
Bob Latham is a partner at the law firm Jackson Walker, L.L.P., and a World Rugby board member. A compilation of his best columns titled “Winners & Losers: Rants, Riffs and Reflections on the World of Sports,” is available for purchase at amazon.com.