To Our Readers: Another new column from The Orange County Tribune is “Baseball Notes” from long-time Westminster resident, historian and baseball devotee. It’s been a strange season, but not the first strange season ….
The record for the smallest paying crowd at a MLB game was set in 1882, when the Worcester Ruby Legs played the Troy Trojans. Six paying customers showed up. Both teams disbanded after the season.
On July 8, 2002, the Charleston River Dogs hosted a game against the Columbus Red Stixx billed as “Nobody Night,” a promotion attempting to set the record for the smallest crowd at a professional game (zero). The club sent disappointed customers at the gate to a party with discounted food and beer near the ballpark. Fans were allowed in after the game was declared official in the fifth inning. The stands became the site of an Easter Egg hunt for kids looking for unclaimed foul balls. The team sent verification of the record non-attendance to the Hall of Fame.
I have seen no record of the team making a “Nobody Night” T-shirt, but if they didn’t they should have. On April 29, 2015 there was civil unrest in Baltimore over the death of a Black man in police custody and the game between the Orioles and the White Sox scheduled for that day was played in front of a “crowdless stadium.” I remember seeing a video of that game and watching foul balls bounce around in the silent, empty stands and thinking “This can’t happen again.”
We are now past the quarter mark of this strange, Crowdless Season. A lot of what’s happened comes as no surprise. A few teams would have a COVID outbreak and cancel games before some ballplayers figured out that going to the casino wasn’t cool right now. There had been very few competitive games played during “Summer Camp” other than intrasquad contests. The 60-game schedule was going to be tough on second half hitters. But, halfway to what would be the All Star game for a normal season during a normal year, something beyond the weird cut-out fans in attendance is definitely not normal.
There must be a circle of Hell where the home team lineup consists of nine Jeff Mathises, currently batting .158. It may be in Cleveland, where the team’s batting average is below the Mendoza Line. The Dodgers are still dominating but are hitting about .230, close to 25 points lower than the last few years. The Angels, who until recently have shown less life on the field than the fans do in the stands, are hovering around a dismal .215. These three teams are examples of a trend; the MLB batting average (a few days ago) was at .230. That matches the all-time lowest American League Average, achieved in 1968. MLB changed the rules to favor hitting after that. Hitters aren’t hitting right now, and at a historic clip.
The 1918 Spanish Flu lasted through 1920 and had a direct effect on baseball. It was largely the reason for banning the spitball, a very difficult pitch to hit. In 1920 the live ball was introduced and Babe Ruth proceeded to reinvent the game.
This season’s Pandemic Edition was bound to look a little like spring training and the abbreviated season will take away some of the playoff drama. But I’ll still watch pitchers throw at the Astros, Corey Seager hit and Mike Trout be Mike Trout with Anthony Rendon behind him in the lineup.
And if Dylan Bundy is baseball’s best starting pitcher a quarter of the way into the season, the Angels’ future looks brighter. Like much of life in 2020, this baseball season will require a huge asterisk. It will be a historic one, and I want to watch it.
Jerry Howard’s “Baseball Notes” appears on Fridays during the MLB season.