Around the Horn

The TMP experience, 2021 style

Tonight I went to a baseball game in person for the first time in two years. It's been a long absence from the ballpark—and from most other social and cultural aspects of life—thanks to the COVID pandemic, but with vaccinations becoming common, life is starting to approach normalcy again.

Things have changed, however, at the ballpark by Elliott Bay. As discussed earlier, former Seattle Mariners president Kevin Mather put in place policy changes before he had to resign for talking too much, changes that would be unpopular and thus would be done under the fictional guise of COVID protocols but remain in place in perpetuity. Once people had some experience with them and gotten used to the idea, the backlash wouldn't be so strong, so by using the pandemic as an excuse they could get away with it, or so the thinking went.

And I'm sure they're right. People tend to accept things that not so long ago would have been fought with far more vigor. We as a culture have numbed ourselves to such things and are just fine with variations of security theater even though they serve no practical security purpose and, as in the case with the Mariners and TMP, disguise the more nefarious motivation to suck more money out of patrons. I find both the policies themselves and the dishonesty surrounding their implementation to be rather loathsome, but was curious to see what the experience felt like up close and personal.

So in my return to live baseball—to see Yusei Kikuchi and the Mariners take on and defeat the defending AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays—I opted to go along with the Mather plan for one game, to refrain from bringing anything with me other than my scorebook and what would fit in my pockets and rely on in-stadium concessions for food and anything else that might come up. For the purposes of seeing the new setup, this was strictly recon.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a good evaluation circumstance, at least when it came to the entry procedures. With capacity still limited and people still a little bit skittish about being out in crowds, there weren't a lot of people at the game (announced attendance: 12,654; actual attendance: significantly less). Minimal lines at the gate had everything to do with the small crowd and nothing to do with disallowing bags being carried in or new ticketing systems. Though my seatmate and I prepared ahead of time to prove our vaccination status since our seats were in a "fully-vaccinated only section," there was no screening for this nor even any sort of apparatus in place to delineate such sections, let alone isolate them from the rest of the stadium. When an usher was asked about it, she told us it's basically on the honor system. Signs mandating mask usage were prevalent, but almost no one was masked, including most of the staff except for concessionaires.

The new cashless system was curious. ATM-like stations for turning cash into usable debit cards were seen along the lower deck concourse, though not the upper; pricing for concessions was more than I remember from 2019, but still in the general range and still using round figures in 50-cent increments. Nowhere was it obviously posted that there was now sales tax being charged in addition to the posted prices, though, and more tellingly, no receipts were given. When I purchased food from the Ivar's stand in the upper deck I asked for a receipt and the cashier (can we still call them that?) said "no receipt." Granted, we were both masked and it was hard to hear anything with the blasting of the PA, so it's possible it was a matter of a machine being out of order or something, but I looked at folks at other stands as well and saw no receipts anywhere. So I think I paid a ridiculous $21.45 for my fish-and-chips and regular sized Dr Pepper, but I don't know for sure. For all I know, I got socked for some mystery fee that I'll only find out about when I see a bank statement or look it up in my online banking. And if I didn't know ahead of time about sales tax no longer being factored into the posted price, I'd think I paid less.

Also, there were no condiment stands. And let me tell you, fries are less tasty dry than with ketchup and the fish is less appealing without the vinegar. Why were these absent? I never found out, but I suspect the official reason, at least, is somehow allegedly COVID-related. I imagine there will be enough demand for these to return, but we'll see.

Some things remained constant, though. For one, Tom Hutyler is still bad at his job; two substitutions went unannounced and one was announced late. For two, the PA is still absurdly loud and is so obnoxious that I fantasized about sneaking in in the dark of night sometime and cutting all the wires to the upper deck speakers. I also regaled my seatmate with the tale of the blessed day that the scoreboards were broken and thus we fans were subjected to none of the Pavlovian "make noise!" crap or between-innings gimcrackery and their accompanying aural assaults. (She suggested that "no scoreboard night" should be added to the regular rotation of promotions, and I cannot think of a more enticing one. Forget bobbleheads and retro jersey days, give me freedom from deafening noise night.)

After the game, as we were leaving the ballpark, my friend and I both felt strange, like something wasn't right, because we didn't have our usual stuff—I didn't have my messenger bag and she didn't have her purse, we were just carrying the few things we had. It was odd.

So it remains to be seen how the new policies will affect the experience at the games. I resent the cashless opacity of concessions but since it's still ultimately under my own control what I spend and I'm not among those who don't have or need to practice real discipline with debit/credit cards I will tolerate it. The next night game I attend I will be living more dangerously, though: I intend to bring outside food and greater layering for warmth (because $21.45 is way too much to pay for a bad meal and once the sun starts setting and the breeze swirls around it gets chilly even in June), and as I don't own anything useful that the TMP powers that be find acceptable in terms of a 12" square transparent bag, I'll probably carry my stuff in an unacceptable bag, a plastic grocery bag perhaps, dump the stuff out and wad the empty bag up in a pocket as I get in line at the gate, carrying my goods awkwardly and possibly causing a delay as I juggle, drop, and retrieve all the stuff while trying to get my digital ticket under the new scanner gadget, and transfer things back into the I-bet-you-cannot-justify-why-it's-contraband bag once I'm inside.

As for the reason I went in the first place? All good. The Mariners smacked around the Rays for four runs in the first inning, J.P. stayed hot, and Kikuchi overcame some early command issues to throw seven strong frames for the win. And for, what, the fourth or fifth game in a row the Mariners' manager made no boneheaded moves!

All in all, it was good to be back.