Red Sox News: Alex Verdugo expresses concerns about empty ballpark games
By Sean Penney
The MLB season may be played without fans in attendance and Boston Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo explains why that could be a problem.
Alex Verdugo would appreciate a warm welcome when he makes his debut for the Boston Red Sox but the Fenway faithful probably won’t be there to greet him when the 2020 season eventually gets underway.
MLB is still in the process of finding a way to open the season safely amid a global pandemic. Several scenarios have been explored but optimism is growing that the ideal solution of most teams playing in their own ballparks could happen by the end of next month or early July.
One aspect that every feasible scenario has had in common is that fans will not be in attendance when the season begins. Even if teams sold fewer tickets to allow a limited number of fans to spread out around the park, there would still be large waves of people entering the gates, passing through the concourse, or lining up at concession stands. Social distancing rules may loosen over the summer but allowing thousands of people to attend a ball game would be flat out ignoring those practices.
Verdugo recognizes that these safety measures are necessary but he’s not overlooking the impact that empty ballparks could have on the players. As reported by Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic, Verdugo believes that the atmosphere created by fans matters.
"“I’m not opposed to it, it’s just, you start thinking, for the first 30 games it’s fine,” he said. “But what happens when all the players are a little bit sore (and) it gets repetitive? The fans bring that energy. The fans add that extra adrenaline that pushes you a little bit more. That’s the only downfall I see without having fans. It’s tough. I like that when you make a play when a pitcher strikes somebody out, or you hit something, I like to hear the cheering, the boos. It’s that instant feedback that gives you that adrenaline or makes you a little bit nervous and you feed off of that.”"
Playing in empty stadiums will be an adjustment for most players. They fuel on the adrenaline rush of being cheered by a supportive fan base. Clutch moments are intensified by a raucous crowd. Playing the game while it feels like nobody is watching may relieve some of the pressure but some players rely on that pressure to push them.
This empty stadium plan also brings up the question of whether or not home field advantage matters if there are no fans in the park. If nobody is there to cheer or boo then the primary advantage of playing at home boils down to familiarity with the ballpark. Most veteran players from division rivals have plenty of familiarity in those parks, further dampening the advantage.
The MLB season is expected to be shortened with teams limited to playing within their own division or those from cities in close proximity geographically. Long cross-country trips that may include multiple time zone changes is one of the drawbacks of playing on the road. The travel can wear players out over the course of a grueling schedule, giving the home team more of a boost. Traveling won’t be as much of a burden if teams stick primarily to the same region and they won’t be away from the comforts of home and their families as often in a shorter season.
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Home-field advantage may not matter to every team but it does to potential contenders with a passionate fan base. That’s a category the Red Sox typically find themselves in and hope to return to this year.
Last year’s disappointing season was an outlier. The Red Sox were worse at home (38-43) than they were on the road (46-35). That obviously wasn’t the case in their dominant 2018 campaign when they led the majors with 57 home wins on their way to a franchise record 108 regular season victories.
Prior to last season, the Red Sox had posted a winning record at home every year since 2014. The cozy confines of Fenway Park have typically provided an advantage that they may not be able to count on this year, for the most part.
Verdugo has big shoes to fill as the centerpiece of the Mookie Betts trade with the Dodgers. The Fenway crowd tends to be unforgiving to struggling players who come with high expectations so this could be a “careful what you wish for” situation.
The freshly acquired Red Sox outfielder does bring up a valid point about the impact on players overall. This is an interesting aspect to watch this season if games are indeed played without fans.