ARLINGTON, Texas – Susanna Frare said her family decided to take a “calculated risk” attending the home opener of the Texas Rangers, the first major U.S. pro sports event to approach capacity in a stadium since the coronavirus shutdown more than a year ago.
The crowd of 38,238 at Globe Life Field was announced as a sellout Monday for the 6-2 loss to Toronto. The retractable roof was open on a 75-degree day with 15 mph winds.
“Since it’s at full capacity, that was something that we gave a lot of thought about,” said Frare, holding one young child with another sitting next to her at a table behind seats in the upper deck in left field about two hours before the game.
“But since masks are required and we’re doing our part and we know that the ballpark is doing their part to keep everything clean and sanitized as much as possible, we just thought it was worth it to come on out here," she said.
The Rangers gained national attention with their announcement last month to make all tickets available for the home opener, drawing criticism from President Joe Biden that it was a “mistake” and “not responsible.”
The club's decision came not long after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state's mask mandate and cleared businesses to operate normally. The Rangers said masks were required.
The Republican governor sent the Rangers a letter saying he wouldn't throw out the first ball, citing Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to Georgia’s sweeping new voting laws.
Frare wasn't going to miss this chance to see the game.
“It’s opening day,” she said. “We’ve never had an opportunity to go to an opening day. We just felt like it’s the kind of time to get back out there. It’s a calculated risk. But something that we wanted to do, a fun experience.”
It was definitely the closest thing to normal in pro and college sports since mid-March last year, when college basketball shut down the same day MLB called off spring training.
Baseball had an abbreviated 60-game regular season without fans last year. The only games with fans were at the home of the Rangers — the neutral-site NL Championship Series and World Series.
This was the first chance for Texas fans to see their own team in a game that counted — many came to the playoffs last year just to see the $1.2 billion stadium and because they missed baseball.
Many other things were normal as well, including the patches of empty, sun-splashed seats that were common for many previous home openers in Texas.
Fans could be heard clearly singing the national anthem, slugger Joey Gallo got a loud ovation during pregame introductions and all the concession stands were open.
In the second inning, Toronto's Marcus Semien and Cavan Biggio connected on back-to-back homers, prompting fans to pressure the pair who snagged the souvenirs to toss the balls back onto the field. Neither caved to the peer pressure.
“I’ve been excited for this park from the minute they announced they were going to build it,” 23-year-old Rangers fan Alex Posani said.
“I watched them build it whenever I went to games over there,” he said, referring to still-standing Globe Field Park, visible across the street through the huge glass windows above left field.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa was the first starting shortstop not named Elvis Andrus for the Rangers in their home opener since 2008. Andrus was traded to Oakland in the offseason.
“It felt like it was my debut all over again,” Kiner-Falefa said after the game. "I think the introduction when I first came out, early in the game, that was probably one of the coolest moments of my career to this date. I appreciate the fans giving me the opportunity to feel that.”
Infectious disease experts are mixed in their view of the Rangers allowing full capacity at this stage of the pandemic.
While New Jersey-based medical anthropologist Theresa MacPhail called it “misguided,” former White House medical staff member Dr. William Lang said lower rates of infection and increasing rates of vaccination in Texas give the decision more credibility.
“I know people will disagree with me,” said Lang, who served in the President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and is now medical director of WorldClinic. “Reasonable people will disagree on this one as opposed to some of the times we've been with this where reasonable wouldn't disagree, they would just say, ‘No, this is stupid.’”
Mask compliance was strong on the main concourse before the game, but had dropped to about 50% by the middle innings. Ushers and security personnel weren't seen stopping fans walking without masks.
The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says fully vaccinated people can mingle indoors with others who are fully vaccinated. But the CDC says everyone should still wear masks in public.
Tarrant County, where Globe Life Field is located, and neighboring Dallas County both have about a 20% rate of fully vaccinated people, with about 30% partially vaccinated.
Long lines lacking social distancing required fans to wind through the concourse, and they were sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder in bottlenecks.
The scene was what Dr. Richard Ellison, hospital epidemiologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, had in mind when warning of the consequences of a premature reopening amid favorable COVID-19 trends in Texas.
“I do think it’s a balance of this is a risk for Major League Baseball,” Ellison said. “If ... there’s an upswing in the number of cases in Arlington or the Dallas area, that’s going to be a marker in saying that this is risky activity. It’s not great publicity for the league.”
Texas starting pitcher Mike Foltynewicz's wife and young children were planning to attend along with his parents, whom the right-hander said he hasn't seen since last summer. Foltynewicz said the Texas front office has been talking to the players about the plan.
“We’ve had a bunch of questions,” he said. “We’ve got those answers over the last few weeks. I know the Rangers are going to do this right. No worries. I’m just very excited, like it’s going back to normal. People are coming back in.”