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Back to the ballpark: The Cubs got the Sloan Park experience right

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Going to a baseball game for the first time in almost a year was fun... and safe, thanks to Cubs and MLB protocols.

Al Yellon

MESA, Arizona — Earlier Tuesday, I wrote about my feelings about going to a baseball game for the first time in almost a year.

I won’t lie — I was somewhat apprehensive, given the pandemic that we’re not quite out of yet, and the fact that I hadn’t really been out anywhere except the grocery store and Costco, and a couple of outdoor patios at restaurants, since March 2020.

All of those apprehensions vanished Tuesday. The Cubs have gone above and beyond in making Sloan Park as safe as possible for the approximate 20 percent of capacity they can have at games this year. I had heard several figures for the total crowd — anywhere from 3,500 to 3,750. Tuesday’s attendance of 3,225 was a bit below that number, but well spaced out at the ballpark, and I think the best way for me to describe the experience is to go step by step.

I know a lot of the staff at Sloan Park from going there since it opened in 2014; I haven’t counted but that’s got to be well over 100 games there. Staff was kind and welcoming, and they had the following setup at the gate:

Al Yellon
Al Yellon
Al Yellon

They also had these stickers on the pavement near all the gates, as well as concession stands:

Al Yellon

There were a lot of different players on these, an eclectic selection that included Hall of Famers like Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins, but also Alfonso Soriano, Mark Prior and old-timers like Ralph Kiner and Hank Sauer, and... Steve Swisher. (?)

Anyway, the new magnetometers, which you can see in the first photo, allow you to go through with phones and keys in your pocket. They are designed to find larger pieces of metal, if they do, then they take a photo of you and you’re pulled aside for further inspection. I didn’t see anyone have to do this.

Here is the line at the Home Plate Gate just before the gates opened at 11:35 a.m.:

Al Yellon

All seemed to go pretty smoothly.

Inside, here’s the view of how they marked the “pods” on the lawn:

Al Yellon
Al Yellon

You have probably seen some of the lawn “pods” at other parks painted white. The Cubs chose this darker green so that you don’t see them on TV, apparently. They’re easy enough to find when you’re on the lawn. All the pods are one size, which makes them a bit small for four people, which is the maximum number of a pod on the lawn. During the game, in fact, when more than four people were sitting in one pod, security came along and asked them to split up. There were a number of these circles that weren’t used.

Here’s how they block off the seats they don’t want occupied, with zip ties:

Al Yellon

Here’s some other signage and COVID protection throughout Sloan Park:

Al Yellon
Al Yellon

You can see another one of the player concourse markers here:

Al Yellon
Al Yellon
Al Yellon
Al Yellon

This was the line to get into the main Team Shop about 20 minutes after the gates opened:

Al Yellon
Al Yellon

Regarding masks, the rule is: You must wear a mask at all times unless actively eating or drinking. This was generally adhered to, though I did see some people not wearing masks on the lawn while NOT eating or drinking. A couple times, security stopped by to ask people to mask up.

In general, it was great to get back to the ballpark. In some ways it felt as if it was just the same as any other spring game. But then, looking around and seeing only about 3,000 people scattered around Sloan Park, you realize it’s not the same at all. I give the Cubs a lot of credit for thinking through their protocols to keep people safe without being overbearing about it. Some of the protocols were set by MLB, and then later modified a bit by teams to make it easier for fans to have a good experience.

Will this work at MLB parks like Wrigley Field? Wrigley, despite its much larger capacity than Sloan Park, is on a much tighter footprint, especially outside, where there isn’t much room for fans to line up. In Mesa, there’s room to spread out, even though one thing fans enjoy during spring training isn’t available this year:

Al Yellon

Even so, some fans lined up on the edge of the parking lot near Field 1, probably 150 feet away from the field, to try to get a glimpse of the Cubs practice.

I enjoyed the game and being out in the sunshine and feeling as if baseball and life were slowly returning to normal. We’re not quite there yet, but I am satisfied that it is safe to go to a game in Mesa.

In Chicago? Not yet, according to this Tuesday Tribune article:

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday that the Cubs and White Sox will be able to host fans this season.

But the mayor declined to offer a timeline on when, noting the city is “in discussions” with the city’s baseball teams and they’ll announce more details later.

“I think there will be a point, sometime this season, where you’ll see fans in the stands at both Wrigley and Guaranteed Rate Field, which I still call Sox Park,” Lightfoot said.

Fenway Park and the two New York ballparks will be open to a small number of fans, and the Tribune article cites two other parks:

Cleveland announced last week that Progressive Field will be open to 30% capacity to start the 2021 season, an estimated crowd of 10,500. The Colorado Rockies also received approval from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment to host 12,500 fans at Coors Field — 25% of capacity.

So we’ll see. For now, I’m glad to be able to attend 14 home games at Sloan Park this spring. It’s baseball, back for live viewing again, at least in Arizona and Florida.