MLB playoffs 2020: Inside MLB's plan to have fans in the stands starting with NLCS opener


ARLINGTON, Texas -- Every day last week, about 20 Texas Rangers employees fanned out to different parts of their glistening new ballpark, Globe Life Field, armed with what they hope will be vital in preempting the potential spread of the coronavirus at Major League Baseball's first game with fans in 2020: zip ties.

For months, as it became clear that Globe Life would host neutral-site postseason games in this oddest of seasons, the Rangers had been planning for this moment, which will take place Monday at 8 p.m. ET, when the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series and as many as 11,500 fans patronize the stadium. The Rangers teamed with MLB on a protocol that would rely on three tenets: mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing. As a precaution against those who might be tempted to run afoul of an assigned-seat rule, Rangers employees folded up more than 30,000 seat bottoms and used 5-foot-long zip ties to adhere them to their seat backs.

Fans over the age of 2 -- except for those with a medical condition or disability that precludes their use -- will be required to wear masks over their noses and mouths. Around 200 employees will roam the stadium to enforce compliance, said Rob Matwick, the Rangers' executive vice president of ballpark operations. While fans can remove the masks to eat or drink, those seen not wearing them will be given two warnings before being ejected from the game if caught maskless a third time.

Though the decision to allow fans into games is no longer unique -- the NFL, college football, MLS and NASCAR are among those who have opened their gates -- it's as much about 2021 as it is 2020. Behind the scenes, sources said, MLB owners have balked at the idea of playing to empty stadiums next season, and holding the NLCS and World Series with fans will provide the league with proof of concept to see whether it can work as a short-term fix.

"When we decided on neutral sites, Texas does have a regulation that permits fans in stadiums," said Bryan Seeley, a senior vice president with MLB who has helped write the league's coronavirus protocols. "We started to give some thought about whether it was a good opportunity to do it as a prelude to next year. We didn't want to do it in [the division series]. We wanted to make sure there was a secure zone and not try to introduce too much. The NLCS was a good opportunity. We talked to health experts, saw what other leagues are doing and decided to move forward with it."

Following those conversations, MLB decided against requiring temperature checks for those entering the stadium, Seeley said, believing that the benefit to them would be mitigated by the close contact necessary between employees scanning foreheads and fans. The Rangers, Matwick said, have not been testing game-day employees for the coronavirus.

Tarrant County, where Arlington is located, currently has slightly more than 3,000 active coronavirus cases, according to the state's COVID-19 dashboard. In the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, which includes Arlington, 962 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19. Of the more than 50,000 cases Tarrant County has seen, 763 people have died.

The American League Championship Series started Sunday with only cardboard cutouts and a small number of family members in the stands at Petco Park in San Diego. The vibe at the NLCS will be entirely different -- aside from the piped-in noise and broadcast enhancements, which MLB said would remain. All of the games for the NLCS and World Series are sold out, according to MLB, with around 10,500 tickets distributed in pods of four that are distanced 6 feet apart. The other 1,000 or so fans will sit in suites, which will hold between 25% and 33% capacity, according to the league.

"I'm overwhelmed with joy to have fans back in the stands," Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr. said. "The season never felt the same without them, and it goes without saying we miss them dearly."

Hundreds of signs have been hung throughout the stadium, including on the door of every suite, to remind fans that mask-wearing is compulsory, even inside of suites. The retractable roof at Globe Life is expected to be open for every game of the series, barring a change in weather, as forecasts project near-perfect conditions for each of the potential seven games.

Concession stands with contact-free payments, pre-packaged food and no shared condiment dispensers will be open throughout the stadium, with floor markings to encourage proper distancing. Throughout the concourses, the Rangers set up sinks that are usually used for food preparation to serve as hand-washing stations.

"I'm realistic about this," said Matwick, the Rangers' conduit to MLB. "I think we'll get better as we go. It's going to be an education process. In order to do these things, we need to follow the rules."

Although the only games played at the park to date were last week's fan-free division series between the Dodgers and Padres, the Rangers do have some experience with crowds at Globe Life. Between May and July, Matwick said, the stadium held 61 high school graduations. The organization provided tickets with assigned seats, opened different entrances for the graduates and families, and created specific routes for the students to walk from the stands to the field to receive their diplomas. More than 100,000 people attended the graduations, Matwick said, and another 20,000 have come to Globe Life to tour the $1.2 billion facility.

Gates to the stadium will open two hours ahead of the first pitch thrown by Los Angeles' Walker Buehler -- the same time as the parking lots that abut the ballpark. MLB considered a timed entry with each ticket, but it hopes that the size of the crowd and each pod being given a specific entrance point will prevent long lines from forming. When fans do arrive, they'll be required to do so with no bags other than diaper bags for babies. All they can bring in is a sealed bottle of water no greater than one liter.

Some small details of the plan could change -- if people are seen nursing tubs of popcorn so they can keep their masks down, for example, popcorn could be taken off the menu -- but what happens at the NLCS and World Series might well be a blueprint for what baseball looks like next spring. A number of teams asked MLB during the season to allow fans into stadiums and even had local government approval, but commissioner Rob Manfred denied those wishes.

Not anymore. Starting Monday, fans are back in stadiums, and barring an outbreak, they're not likely to go away, either.

"We've missed our fans this whole year," Dodgers catcher Will Smith said. "I mean, I expect Dodger fans to be out here cheering hard and really giving us that home-field advantage."