The odd experience of D-backs baseball in Chase Field with no fans
A mask on my face. A signature on a waiver. A temperature check on my forehead.
Major League Baseball is revving up in downtown Phoenix, just as the Valley is retreating once again from a pandemic. And on Thursday afternoon, I followed protocol back into the front row of the Chase Field press box.
Rarely have I been so happy to be seated inside this cavernous dome, one that has caused me so much conflict over the years.
Minutes later, a home run rattled between rows of empty seats. The sound was jarring and grotesque, a reminder of the loneliness ahead. This is going to be so weird.
But let’s start here:
This stadium and I have a strange relationship. The Diamondbacks paved my way to Arizona. When the 48th state acquired a fourth major professional sports franchise, along with accompanying Big League status, the state’s biggest newspaper needed a second columnist.
I got the job. Despite interviewing with the price tag attached to my new suit.
Alas, since the doors of Chase Field opened in 1998, there have only been a fraction of games that have elicited the kind of anticipation and excitement that marked my childhood love affair with baseball: Opening Days, playoff appearances, games against the Dodgers, games against the notorious Barry Bonds and whenever Randy Johnson took the mound.
In short, I detest the vibe, the lack of intimacy and the low-wattage energy at Chase Field. It’s nobody’s fault. The Diamondbacks are cursed to be playing a summertime sport in the desert. They need air conditioning. They are required to close the roof and outfield panels far more often than not.
But it’s not ideal, and certainly not what sends my heart soaring.
This summer will be a new experience for all of us. Baseball will sound dramatically different without barking vendors, in-game promotions and the steady hum of a communal gathering. Chase Field will feature artificial crowd noise to alleviate the creepiness. Advertising tarp will cover the lower concourse. Walk-up music will still be played for hitters strolling to home plate, but most everything else will be accent pieces to make the sport look good on television.
Not to be cheeky, but the Diamondbacks are ideally suited for baseball without fans. We have already experienced weeknight home games against the Padres that won’t look, feel our sound much different than baseball in an empty stadium. This is a franchise that has spent most of its existence pleading for fans to show up and prompting them to make noise. They know what’s like to survive on their own fuel.
New ace Madison Bumgarner had no problems during Thursday’s intrasquad game. After taking the mound, he yelled at the grounds crew tending to home plate, brusquely telling them to get off the field. Then he yelled toward the press box, demanding the blaring country music be immediately silenced. He brought an attitude and intensity that quickened my pulse. He was a man who wanted to get to work, and at this point, I’m ready to embrace it all.
So, fingers crossed. You hope against hope. You fear the bottom falling out of the tub at any moment. The PGA Tour and NASCAR have resumed their operations, sports that flourish without human contact. But the college football season is breaking apart before our very eyes. The pandemic rages on. Opening Day is just two weeks away.
If we can just get to the starting line, there will be no more gripes, complaints or wishing for a new ballpark. This will be a time for Chase Field to shine. To provide safe haven for our baseball team and a sport that is trying to find elevation. A sport trying to find a runway in a storm. A sport that has taught us something in its absence:
Summer just isn’t the same without baseball. Even in Arizona.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.