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Back At Busch: Fans Return For Another Pandemic-Influenced Cards Season

David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The Cardinals home opener is Thursday against the Milwaukee Brewers.

It’s the second consecutive season for Major League Baseball during a pandemic, but unlike last year, there will be fans in the stands.

The team will start the season at 32% capacity at Busch Stadium. That works out to roughly 14,500 fans a game.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Wayne Pratt spoke with Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III about getting people back in the seats and the impact of the past year on the team’s operations.

Wayne Pratt: Considering everything we’ve been through, are you excited, nervous (about the home opener)?

Bill DeWitt III: It’s just been so long. I mean you know, two years really since the last opening day. Obviously, last year we did get a season in. It was 60 games but no fans. That’s just such a big part of the game and what we do certainly around here. So, it will be a little limited obviously to start. But just having 14,500 fans here, I’m just going to be really happy to see everybody walking around and enjoying opening day.

Pratt: Are your fingers crossed that you’ll be able to increase capacity as the season goes on?

DeWitt: Yes. We’re very optimistic and hopeful. Maybe not in May. We’ll see if numbers continue to get better on the COVID issue. But certainly June, I think, looks promising. But, you know, we’re just waiting to see. Obviously, we have to work with city health officials to map out a plan for selling the rest of the season if we want to do additional capacity.

Pratt: How challenging has it been to come up with this plan to allow fans back in the stands to start the season?

DeWitt: It’s very difficult. If you think about it, we have our season ticket holders who make up about 20,000 seats. That group obviously has to get reshuffled when you have a limited capacity situation. So, we give them first crack at choosing seats that are available — spread out, all the pods are six feet apart from one another. Early on we were kind of thinking it’s really hard to sell something when you don’t know what you’re selling. Now that we’ve finally figured out what we are doing in April, that’s how we’re doing it. And then we’ll pretty soon release May with a game plan either similar or with a little more capacity.

Pratt: How confident are you at this point about keeping everyone safe?

DeWitt: I’m very confident. We are requiring masks, obviously. People are six feet apart. They’re outside. We have spacing requirements throughout the concession stands, and you know concourses and things. Everything is touchless. When people come in they’ll be using their phones as opposed to scanning it, trading tickets back and forth or whatever. So, we’re going to be very, very safe.

Pratt: What kind of emotional or mental toll has this taken on the staff over the past year?

Dewitt: You know, it’s funny. The people who have needed to be here every day kind of holding down the fort, talking about sort of about a dozen people that sort of the burden fell on a little bit to manage us through this process. In a way, we’re better off, even though they had to work a lot harder. It’s the people that I think all of a sudden their job wasn’t needed for a season where they were home and we kept them on, obviously the vast majority of people we carried them through the pandemic. And now we kept them, so they’re going to be there for us this year. I think it was the toughest on them because, you know, it’s just a little bit of a Groundhog Day thing. Every day, you know, you’re still waiting and waiting, and it just kept going on and on, and I know a lot of people have that same feeling.

I had that feeling for a while. It’s a mental health toll. And there’s obviously the unknown, right? We didn’t know how bad this is going to get, whether the vaccines would work, all this kind of stuff. I think now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel a lot of that will be sort of a memory. But some people have those lingering aftereffects, and we need to, from an HR standpoint, be aware of that.

Pratt: How much of a financial hit for the team is it opening with some fans but still not at full capacity? Is there any way to calculate that?

DeWitt: We’ve calculated. Yeah, it’s not a pretty sight. The income statement I can be clear with about that. You know, it’s been a tough situation for us from a business standpoint. We’re starting the season at limited capacity, but we’re playing a full slate of games and paying that full payroll to the major league staff. So, you know, hopefully, we can be back to a normal economic environment next year and start that sort of long process of recovering on the financial side of things.

There are other aspects of it, too, that we’ve been on hold like, for example, Ballpark Village across the street where Phase 2 is now open. It’s been open for a year, but we had the pandemic. So didn’t want to sound like we’re crying poor or anything, but it was difficult and we’ll get to the other side of it, thanks to our great fans. And I know everybody else had similar stories in their businesses or their personal lives.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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Wayne Pratt is a veteran journalist who has made stops at radio stations, wire services and websites throughout North America. He comes to St. Louis Public Radio from Indianapolis, where he was assistant managing editor at Inside Indiana Business. Wayne also launched a local news operation at NPR member station WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana, and spent time as a correspondent for a network of more than 800 stations. His career has included positions in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Toronto, Ontario and Phoenix, Arizona. Wayne grew up near Ottawa, Ontario and moved to the United States in the mid-90s on a dare. Soon after, he met his wife and has been in the U.S. ever since.