“Your baseball team stinks this year,” my husband said, as we walked back to our car after watching our Cleveland Indians in a lackluster loss to the White Sox in late April.
“MY baseball team?” I retorted. “You’re the one who’s been a fan since you were a kid. I only got into them when we moved to Cleveland.”
In reality, we're both ardent Cleveland Indians fans. We've had a partial season ticket plan since 2013, and attend more than 20 home games, most years. We rarely miss the home opener. We simply love being at the ballpark - the vibe, the downtown setting, the sounds and smells.
I call it my happy place, even when they're losing. I start every season with optimism, regardless of expectations. (After all, I'm the dimwit who bet my husband they'd win 90 games this year.)
2020 was surreal, thanks to COVID-19. We didn't know if we'd have baseball at all, and when we did, cardboard cutouts replaced fans in the ballpark for an abbreviated season. We listened to games on the radio but felt removed from the sport, as we did most things during that strangest of years.
On April 20th, we went back to Progressive Field for the first time in a year and a half.
My husband compared it to feeling hopeful and sad at the same time. For me, it was more surreal - not so different from the games we usually attend in April, when the crowds are sparse due to the inevitable wintry weather blowing in from somewhere.
Except what’s this thing on my face? Who are all these people, and why are they getting so close to me? The experience was very much a combination of familiar and foreign.
It was quiet downtown - far more so than on a typical game day. The drive from Cleveland Heights on Carnegie was congested as usual during the evening rush hour, but once we passed the exit for I-90 on Prospect, and the vaccine traffic around the Wolstein Center, everything cleared out considerably.
We found parking for $10 on Bolivar, only a couple of minutes from Progressive Field. We usually park down by Cleveland State for $5 or so, enjoying the post-game walk and the financial savings, but with sparse crowds and deserted streets, we opted for a closer spot.
We confirmed, sadly, that instead of the familiar Brickstone restaurant and bar at the corner of Bolivar and East 9th, there’s now a sign for Goldwater Bank. Apparently, someone thinks a financial institution will thrive across from Progressive Field, where restaurant after restaurant, over the years, has floundered and eventually failed.
We loved Brickstone for the first year or two when they had a more diverse menu than your typical pub fare (the Panzanella salad was truly phenomenal) and less of a sports bar attitude. There’s nothing wrong with a good sports bar but there are plenty of those, and it was nice to have something a bit different so close to the ballpark.
Later, the menu was pared back to a more mundane offering, the doors and windows were shuttered after most Indians home games (when it might be nice to celebrate a win before heading home), there were attendants begging for tips in the restrooms on Opening Day and the employees had no idea what to do when we bought tokens for the jukebox through an app on my iPhone but continued to hear the most generic of the music streaming services through the establishment’s sound system.
Yet, we’re sad to see it go, since it’s been part of our game day experience since opening in 2013. Goodbye and farewell to another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The brisk wind blew in from the Northeast on that Tuesday night, which is unusual around here, especially considering we were due for that snow traveling our way from the west. Standing in line at the gate, we were immediately relieved we didn’t arrive earlier.
Progressive Field was supposed to be open an hour prior to the 6:10 first pitch, but we stood in line for at least 15 minutes past that marker. That’s all fine and good (I’m impatient but not that impatient!) but if the Indians organization wants to avoid queuing at the various gates, they should ensure they let fans in when they say they will.
The Indians have worked diligently with the Cleveland Clinic on COVID-19 protocols to ensure fans, employees, players, and managers are all as safe as possible during games. When we approached the gate, a recorded message over the speakers reminded us that masks were required except when actively eating or drinking in our seats.
We were reminded that masks had to be worn over our mouths and noses. We were prompted to socially distance ourselves from people outside our pod by maintaining a space of six feet between ourselves and others. This recorded message played every few minutes or so, to ensure new fans arriving at the gate would hear it.
But here, in line, we caught our first glimpses of noncompliance. The couple in line behind us either had no idea what six feet looked like or simply didn’t care. They kept inching closer to us and we had nowhere to go without encroaching on the space of the people in front of us (who had their masks under their noses, making me less likely to want to get anywhere near them).
The entry process was relatively smooth. Bags are no longer allowed in Progressive Field, aside from medical or diaper bags, and what they refer to as “clutches”. Since no one is going to actually carry a clutch purse to a baseball game, I confirmed with fan services ahead of time that this really just means “small purse”. In fact, the dimensions are listed on the website - 9 x 5 x 2 inches.
I had to wonder, though, why it was deemed so much safer to mandate paperless ticketing when the poor associate scanning my iPhone for our entry was still only a few inches from me. Surely I could have held my paper ticket up for her to scan, just as easily and safely.
Not everyone has a smartphone, which is now a prerequisite for complying with ticketless entry. Am I the only one who finds this elitist? Are smartphones now a requirement to participate in society as a whole? If I chose not to have a smartphone, have I essentially chosen not to participate?
Like many fans, my husband and I have our game day traditions. We usually head for The Corner Bar in right field to snag a two-top and enjoy a large draft beer. We knew there would be no tables at The Corner, but it still caught me off guard to see the empty space. What surprised us was the lack of any draft beer, so we kept walking.
We decided to take a lap around the perimeter, a long-time tradition of ours (we need to burn off the beer calories somehow, right?). For the most part, our fellow fans did their best to stay distanced, and it felt strange. As an introvert, I like my personal space but recognize I can’t always expect to have it at crowded events. Now, I realized most other people at the game were feeling the same way.
The majority of fans were at least attempting to comply with the mask mandate, though my husband heard me muttering to myself and had to remind me that we weren’t going to discuss each and every person we saw whose mask was under their nose or chin. It would be a long game if I insisted on doing that.
“Fine, I agree,” I told him. “But it doesn’t mean I won’t try to avoid them.”
Approaching the Great Lakes Brewing Company kiosk, we discovered they had draft beer available, so we hit them up for a 24-ouncer before heading to our View Box seats. We know from experience that on weeknights in April, finding anything other than a domestic light beer upstairs is unlikely.
Dortmunder Lagers in hand, we hit the escalator.
The seating arrangement was comfortably distanced, which looked aesthetically bizarre as we glanced around the ballpark. It was good that the unavailable seats were zip-tied up because a nearby family decided they wanted to move, into the row directly in front of us. Since they didn’t have zip-tie clippers with them, they were unable to do so.
We lasted six innings. Plesac imploded after starting strong, the defense was sloppy, the offense was largely non-existent (not unusual, for April). Bases loaded, nobody out, and they managed to scrape out one measly run on an error before Naylor ran us out of the inning by trying to make it home when he had no business doing so.
I was still recovering from the side effects of my second Pfizer vaccine, it was ridiculously cold, and it was highly unlikely the Indians would come back from this deficit.
Heading for the exits, we retraced our steps through the Right Field District, past the Corner Bar. It became quickly obvious that the mask compliance had faded, probably into a haze of craft beer. Half the people we saw during our exodus were unmasked.
Since that night, we've attended two more games at Progressive Field, and my comfort level increased with each visit. Of course, it felt strange to suddenly be in a setting with more people than we've seen in the past year combined, and strangers to boot. It's only natural that we'd feel some re-entry pains.
We've known for quite some time that gathering outdoors was safer than indoors, but it's not completely without risk. Recent articles from Slate and The New York Times discussed whether masking is necessary outdoors, with the NYT article referring to the "two out of three" rule.
There are three conditions for preventing the spread of COVID-19 - outdoors, distanced, and masked. According to Dr. Linsey Marr, a leading expert on viral transmission, meeting two of the three conditions is sufficient to keep risk negligible. (And I'd warrant "vaccination" is a strong fourth.)
This makes sense to me. And while I know that my chances of getting the virus from some drunken, maskless imbecile who brushes past me are slim, I'll continue to wear my mask when walking around the ballpark.
What I still don't understand, though, is what makes complying with a health mandate so difficult for some people. I have to chalk it up to a combination of laziness and arrogance. (”I don’t follow rules. No one’s going to tell me what to do. The rest of you sheeple can wear your masks if you want to, but I’m an individual. I have an immune system.
Don’t like my characterization? Then do the right thing and support your fellow humans in their quest to survive this. We don't yet know how well the vaccines will protect us from existing and emerging COVID-19 variants.
Believe me, I hate wearing the mask. My husband, who spent most of the night with fogged-up glasses, hates it even more. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve sympathized with people who have to wear a mask for an entire work shift. Surely, the least I can do is keep the stupid thing on my face for the span of a ballgame, particularly when I'm walking around inside the park.
I'm sure someone will feel the need to tell me that, if I'm not 100% comfortable going to public events, I should just stay home. I don't disagree that staying home is an option (it's what I've been doing since March 2020, after all), but why should I have to be the one to do it? Perhaps those who feel disinclined to follow the rules of society shouldn't have the right to participate in it.
I'm doing my bit. I've had my vaccines, I'm wearing my mask, I'm staying distanced when out in public. And, for the most part, I feel safe at the ballpark, so I'll keep going.
We can have nice things when we do the right things.
I encourage you to go to the ballpark, too. Capacity has increased to 40% for the May games (and will continue to be assessed and updated on a month-to-month basis). It's usually not too hot or too cold, so it's the perfect time to get out there and support the team which, as of May 4th, is looking a lot more exciting than it was in late April.
Give us a wave, if you see us. We're in the upper-level view boxes, not far from home plate. Just be sure to say hi from a distance, if you don't have your mask on!
For more information about COVID-19 safety protocols at Progressive Field, go to https://www.mlb.com/indians/team/update.