PHOENIX — After starting the season with a rough 2-5 road trip against division rivals San Diego and Colorado, the Arizona Diamondbacks come home tonight to host the Cincinnati Reds in their 6:40 home opener.
The game, which will feature roughly 20,000 fans and an open roof, signifies a return to normalcy not only for those in attendance, but also for Diamondbacks players and staff, both on and off the field. The team could not have any fans in attendance for the entirety of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, the organization, as did most professional teams around the country, instituted notable furloughs and pay cuts for much of their staff.
“We can’t wait to play in front of fans again,” manager Torey Lovullo said.
The team appeared to be hit harder than most by the decreased revenue in 2020. They made few additions in the offseason and opened 2021 with an estimated $99M payroll compared to a non-prorated value of approximately $112M at the end of 2020, according to FanGraphs.
Diamondbacks president and CEO Derrick Hall said that the team’s relative inactivity was not necessarily due to payroll constraints, but rather, driven by confidence in the returning core, despite Arizona’s 25-35 last-place finish in 2020.
“We were very aggressive the last couple of years in filling holes,” Hall said. “We put together a team and a roster that we thought was going to be extremely competitive. Obviously, last year, we had our issues. But we didn’t feel like there was too much to change or tweak.”
In the young season, inactivity has translated to disappointment on the field. The team opened the season by losing three of four games against the competitive San Diego Padres, but then lost two of three to the Colorado Rockies, who are projected to be one of the worst teams in the league after trading superstar Nolan Arenado in the offseason.
The Diamondbacks hope that the return to Chase Field with fans in attendance will boost not only their bottom line, but also their performance. Countless players across the league have said the lack of fans in 2020 affected their performance, citing an absence of the motivation and adrenaline that would come from a screaming crowd.
“Last year was a very awkward year,” Lovullo said. “For us to get back out there today, as I said last year, it’s going to be a big party when we see (the fans) again. We expect them to be loud and into it and it’ll give us a ton of energy.”
After initially announcing a limited attendance of 12,000, or 25% capacity, the Diamondbacks then increased their threshold to 20,000, or roughly 42%. This 42% figure trails only the Rockies (42.6%), Houston Astros (50%) and Texas Rangers (100% for just their home opener), the latter team drawing criticism from public health officials, epidemiologists and even President Joe Biden for their decision to open to full capacity so soon despite concerns of a potential fourth wave.
Fans are clearly eager to return to Chase Field. While some tickets for Friday’s game are still available, the first 12,000 sold out within hours, partially prompting the increase in capacity.
With various COVID-19 restrictions and adjustments, the fan experience will be very similar to that of Salt River Fields during spring training. Tickets are being sold in small, socially distanced pods. Masks are required in all common areas, except when actively eating or drinking. According to Hall, enforcement will be strict.
“We’ve had very few incidents where we’ve had to address it with a fan,” Hall said. “Typically, our ushers or game day staff with their signs of, ‘Wear your mask,’ has really worked, and it’s worked at other venues here locally, too. But we’re going to enforce it. And when we do have a situation where someone’s not wearing a mask, we’re going to address it and hopefully do it in a non-confrontational way. But what we’ve seen is everyone’s been really cooperative, and they realize the importance of wearing a mask and not just for themselves, but everyone around them.”
Tickets and other purchases, including those of the 16 new food offerings available this season, will be handled digitally through the MLB Ballpark app. A clear-bag policy has been implemented to avoid having security members touch bags to inspect them, and gates will open 30 minutes later than usual, opening one hour before first pitch for games Monday through Thursday and 90 minutes before first pitch for games Friday through Sunday.
The roof at Chase Field is typically opened or closed based on weather and temperature. But with research showing that the spread of COVID-19 is slowed in outdoor environments, the team will attempt to keep the roof open as much as possible, even through some warmer weather.
“We’d like to go into as much of June as we can and open up as much of September as we can as well,” Hall said.
The Diamondbacks hope these changes, along with an increased emphasis on sanitization and social distancing, will allow the team to increase capacity further in the near future.
On Friday, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 1,302 new cases of COVID-19, including 369 new cases in Maricopa County. But according to AZDHS, 625 of those cases are from positive tests in Gila, Graham and Navajo counties that previously weren’t recorded during the fall and winter seasons, leaving 677 actual “new” cases.
MLB’s numbers look much more promising. In their Friday update, the league and Players Association jointly announced that in the last week, only 4 of 12,494 tests (0.03%) of players and personnel showed new positives. Since the start of spring, they have reported only 25 positives out of 99,599 total tests, also a 0.03% rate.
Friday’s home opener will include festivities honoring local health care workers. Arizona Department of Health Services director Dr. Cara Christ will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
The Diamondbacks will also hold a pregame moment of silence for former vice president of player development Mike Bell, who died in Phoenix in late March at the age of 46 due to kidney cancer. Bell was entering his second season as the Minnesota Twins’ bench coach.
Limited tickets are still available for the home opener, as well as for subsequent home series. The first 5,000 fans on Friday night will receive a clear tote bag.