We got some exciting news this week. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the state will move into Phase 4, Step 1 on March 22, which will allow large indoor and outdoor arenas and ballparks like Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium and TD Garden to admit up to 12% of capacity.
When you think about it, it’s not that many fans. There will still be a ton of social distancing rules in place, but it’s a glimmer of hope here in New England. It’s light at the end of a long tunnel. It’s been an awful year ,and I know many are craving for a game or a concert or social interaction.
It also got me thinking about my time covering sports here in Boston during this pandemic. I am one of the few people who have watched games at all of the Big Four sports here in the city.
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From Fenway Park to Gillette Stadium to the TD Garden, it was a different experience each time watching the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins.
Was it enjoyable to be inside these venues and watch professional sports live? Yes and no. Every time I stepped into a building, I always tried to remember that the fans couldn't be there and I needed to appreciate the moment for them.
And while I am a sports journalist, I’m also a huge fan of sports too. To watch Xander Bogaerts bring in a run, see Stephon Gilmore pick off a pass, witness Jayson Tatum hit a game-winner off the glass or enjoy an incredible Bruins comeback, it was hard not to get up and cheer.
But I have to say, it wasn’t the best time either. Every amazing moment reminded me of what was happening outside those walls. And the fact that I was one of a handful of people inside was frankly sad and a little depressing. It’s a grim reminder of the reality going on in our country -- 500,000-plus dead, over 28 million cases, millions of jobs lost, not being able to visit your parents or grandparents, the challenges with schools and the difficulties of working from home. Life has drastically changed in the last year.
From a sports perspective, it’s crazy to watch the game in an empty building. It’s weird and eerie. The pregame routines are the same, the DJ is still pumping music, there’s still a PA announcer, the third down foghorn at Gillette still blared, and everything production-wise stayed mostly the same.
The fake crowd noise took some getting used to -- especially at the Patriots games. As I sat outside at level 200, the artificial noise never went up and down during big moments. It just stayed the same. When the public address system was up, you could hear the conversations going on quite well.
At the Garden, it was bizarre. I felt like I was watching a local basketball or hockey game, but instead it was millionaire athletes with millions watching on TV.
And that’s the thing -- watching it on TV, it felt normal. That’s a testament to the behind-the-scenes staff putting that kind of product together without fans.
I do think basketball and hockey were the most affected by not having fans. I brought up that Tatum game-winner earlier. Imagine the home opener with the Garden packed to the gills at that specific moment? After the initial moment of "Wow, that was crazy," I envisioned that moment with fans in the stands and how big the roar would have been. My ears would have been ringing and I would have loved it. You just soak up those moments.
It’s the little things for basketball too. Marcus Smart hustle plays and the appreciation from Green Teamers. A blowout where Celtics Nation is coaxing Brad Stevens to bring in Tacko Fall and the head coach is smiling and riling the crowd up until it is time. Those cheers are so missed.
For the Bruins, these aren’t just your standard fans. This crew is well educated when it comes to this sport. The opener on Jan. 21 was the night Patrice Bergeron wore the “C” for the first time at the Garden. Imagine what the response would have been when he stepped onto the ice. I certainly did. Watching this team pull comeback after comeback this season and the wild moments in overtime and the shootouts and the chants of "Tuuuuuuk." It’s just weird to visualize it when I close my eyes only to open them to sound of silence.
I think the strangest experience was watching Patriots games. The drive to Foxboro was easy on Sundays in 2020. There were no tailgaters, and I missed that experience of walking through the crowd in the parking lot where people would offer you a burger, beverage or a fun conversation about football.
I had a view of the game from the press box and I could go down to the regular seats. Nearly 66,000 empty seats and no Tom Brady. Talk about depressing.
I went to multiple Pats games this past season, and the opener would have been amazing with fans. A new hope with Cam Newton and his first of many rushing touchdowns. The upset over the Ravens in primetime in the rain and fog would have been a blast too. It would have been interesting to hear the boos rain down on this team as the struggles continued on. The Patriots haven’t experienced losing like this in over 20 years, and you knew if that stadium was packed, it wouldn’t have been pretty.
It wouldn’t have been pretty for the Red Sox in their shortened season in 2020 as well. I don’t think baseball at Fenway was affected too much by not having fans there, though. If the Sox had made the playoffs, that would have been a completely different experience, as fans typically gasp at every pitch and go crazy for every hit. A close game in the 9th inning can truly be impacted by Red Sox Nation.
I understand why we had to keep everyone home and I’m happy that they were able to bring sports back during the pandemic. Watching sports shut down in March was a scary time. It was happening so fast and what we witnessed in just one year is tragic.
When I heard the news on Thursday of limited fans being allowed back, it brought a smile to my face. A little normalcy is what we all need. Covering games and seeing people there with me will probably bring tears to my eyes.
I seriously can’t wait.