How Will Coronavirus Impact the Game Day Experience for Young Fans?

Matt’s Bats is now available in spoken word “podcast” form, perfect for your commute to work! You can find me at anchor.fm/matts-bats or on Spotify, Breaker, Google Podcasts, and Radio Public. 

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One of the greatest joys of baseball is to see young fans meet their heroes. The anticipation for the players to come out of the dugout, all of the other kids holding out their pens and baseballs and hoping that by some mere chance you would come out with your favorite player’s signature on a baseball. 

Special moments between players and young fans may be at risk due to coronavirus. This is me meeting former National Zach Walters at Marlins Park in 2014.

Not too long ago, I was that fan. At my first ever baseball game, I got a baseball thrown to me by Jose Reyes of the Mets. I stood in those scrums of other kids to try and get the autographs of Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Yadier Molina, and Josh Donaldson, to name a few. Once, I got former Nationals pitcher Jason Marquis to sign a bat that outfielder Willie Harris had given me – I just wanted the memory of the autograph and the interaction with my favorite players.

But this year, these encounters may not occur. 

Over the last month, our lives have been consumed by the fear of a potential pandemic – the novel Wuhan coronavirus, or COVID-19. According to the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), the coronavirus is incredibly contagious. According to the CDC, the virus spreads if an infected person is within a six foot radius of another person, or through droplets created when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The most dangerous part of the coronavirus is that some people do not show symptoms even if they are infected. 

This evidently causes a big problem for sports teams. Athletes aren’t just responsible for playing their sport – they are frequently in a locker room setting with many other people and are responsible for interacting with fans and creating special moments for children. If one player on the team is infected with coronavirus, the other members of the team are put at a very high risk of contracting the disease. In sports like basketball, hockey, and football, athletes are constantly making physical contact with each other at a higher rate than baseball. If a basketball player contracted the coronavirus, he wouldn’t just put his teammates at risk, but his opponents as well. 

Dr. Fran Cogen of the Washington Nationals Diabetes Care Center at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington shares these concerns in the sports world. Cogen firmly believes that the public should not have “immense fear, but immense knowledge.” She is worried that contact between fans and players could put the players at risk. Her recommendation is that teams and players should be setting examples for the public, like by “washing hands for twenty seconds when appropriate, avoid touching their faces, and avoid using fans’ Sharpies [when signing autographs].”

Some sports leagues in high-risk areas have taken these precautions to the extreme. In Japan, the NPB baseball league is playing the remainder of their preseason games in front of an empty audience. The NPB features many future and former MLB players, including, yes, former Nationals outfielder Gerardo Parra. Similar measures were taken for the Italian Serie A soccer league. These precautionary procedures were reciprocated not far up the road in Baltimore, for the NCAA Division III basketball tournament at Johns Hopkins University. This came after a student and professor at one of the competing schools was diagnosed with coronavirus. 

The Nationals have begun to take measures to try and prevent their players from contracting coronavirus. A statement made Saturday morning

The Nationals are discouraging players autographing items for fans for fears of coronavirus. Me w/ Steve Lombardozzi in 2013.

read that the Nationals were no longer signing objects handed to them by fans – they would instead pass out autographed items before and during the game.  Their signature Sunday program will have players autograph cards or programs, like at previous NatsFests and other team events. 

Cogen doesn’t know whether or not the Nats and MLB should take precautions as serious as playing games in front of an empty audience. Although players themselves wouldn’t be at risk if that were the case, fans may. Cogen recommends that fans avoid “high fives, hugs and kisses” and “try to maintain appropriate space from one another,” which obviously can be difficult in a stadium for 40,000 people. She’s additionally concerned about food vendors, who if they are infected, could unknowingly transmit the virus to many people through their ballpark food. 

As a fan, I would be devastated if this unfortunate series of events were to take place. The last time I visited Spring Training, it was an opportunity for me to get up close and personal with the players. I had a great conversation with former Nats relief pitcher Ryan Mattheus, way back when, one year at Spring Training. Taking away that experience for new baseball fans may make it harder for kids to grow to love the game of baseball. And if this policy were to be enacted for the first few weeks of the regular season, the Nationals would miss out on some of the most exciting events to experience as World Series champions – a ring ceremony and a banner unveiling. I know that each and every single National wants to celebrate that special moment with the fans that stood by them through the ups and downs. While MLB should make sure that all fans and players are safe and healthy, it would be devastating if such were to happen this year because of coronavirus.

Remember to wash your hands and please, stay healthy.

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Thank you to Dr. Fran Cogen for helping me with this post!

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