ARLINGTON, Texas — Smiles. They are everywhere here at the World Series, from the ballpark to the hotel lobbies to the playing field to the restaurants, and what a welcome sight they are.
Often, of course, these smiles are hidden behind omnipresent masks. Sometimes, like on a walk near Globe Life Field midday Wednesday while passing a father and two teenage boys wearing "Bellinger 35" jerseys, the smiles are only visible through the twinkling of a sparkling set of eyeballs.
"You guys in from Los Angeles?"
"No, Tucson," the man answered. "We used to live in L.A. We weren't going to miss this."
Bright eyes and warm smiles are something we've not seen nearly enough of this year, thanks to a pandemic that has worn so many of us down. What once was a routine act, like popping into a grocery store or attending a concert or a ballgame, now either comes with the added burden of monitoring everyone's movements or simply is no longer an option.
Here at the World Series, while sluggers like Cody Bellinger and Randy Arozarena hunt cookies in their happy zones, many fans have returned to their happy place.
"Hearing reactions … I thought it was refreshing just to have fans in the stands," Rays third baseman Joey Wendle said following Game 1 on Tuesday night, the first time Tampa Bay has played before fans since spring training was suspended in March.
What once was normal has become abnormal.
The 11,388 before which the Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers played in Game 1 was the smallest crowd for a Fall Classic contest since Game 6 of the 1909 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tigers at Detroit's Bennett Park. Ty Cobb batted third for the Tigers. Honus Wagner batted fourth for the Pirates.
Because of COVID-19, of course, this, the 116th World Series, is the first ever played at a neutral site. It also is only the fourth to be played at a single ballpark. The last time that happened was 1944, when all games were played at St. Louis' Sportsman's Park. Before that, the entirety of the World Series was played in New York's Polo Grounds in both 1921 and 1922.
Brand-new Globe Life Field itself is a testament both to modern ingenuity and the old saying that everything is bigger in Texas. It isn't as big as the Dallas Cowboys' gargantuan stadium, which sits next door on one side, but it dwarfs the old red-brick Ballpark in Arlington, which the Rangers vacated after 2019 and sits on the other side. The outfield fence angles in and out in several places to mimic old-style ballparks that were shoehorned into city spaces at the beginning of the last century. But here, there really is no reason why there should be 11 different angles of outfield wall off which the ball can bounce other than, well, maybe the architects were trying a little too hard to be clever.
Aesthetically, from the outside, Globe Life Field resembles the offspring of a Wal-Mart warehouse and a lumber distributorship. For $1.2 billion, you'd think they could have bought pretty, too. Still, the players and team staffs rave about the clubhouse amenities and the playing field.
The fans—11,472 attended Game 2—are scattered in small groups, socially distant, around the entire circumference of the stadium, which makes things seem pretty well balanced and, surprisingly, makes the park look more full than it really is. While those fans are louder than you might expect, as the scoreboards note during pregame, simulated recorded crowd noise is still pumped in to augment the live fans and, hopefully, add to the excitement.
It mostly works. Let's not kid anybody, though: There's no way someone can invent something to replicate the energy of a normal World Series. Take 2017, when more than 50,000 rocked Dodger Stadium and 43,000 or so threatened eardrums in Houston's Minute Maid Park.
But somehow, this still feels like a World Series.
"It does," said Charlie Morton, who will start Game 3 for Tampa Bay on Friday night and pitched for the Astros during that '17 Fall Classic. "And this stadium, even though it's not filled to capacity, there's something about this place that's very robust. It's big. It feels big. They have the big-screen [videoboard] right above the field (in right field) and it feels like it's hanging on top of you.
"They've got the World Series logo, everything's in gold, all the banners you'd expect to see.
"But underneath, in the service tunnel and in the clubhouse, it is weird not to be in the press room. ... It's weird to go to the stadium and not see the parking lots just filled with people. And local TV crews not hanging out. You name it. It's weird. It's sad. But it's still very exciting."
Morton's Rays are just getting to know this place. Game 1 was their first ever at Globe Life Field. The Dodgers, meanwhile, now have played 15 games here, including three in the abbreviated regular season. In the postseason, they've been hanging out here since Oct. 5.
"It seems like we're almost going to play as many games here as the Rangers this year," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
"Whether it be the workouts, games played here in the regular season, postseason, all that stuff has helped make this feel more like home field, and I definitely feel like it's an advantage for us."
The first two games technically were Dodgers home games. They batted last. The in-game production stuff was Dodger Stadium-centric. Before Game 1, legendary broadcaster Vin Scully appeared in a coat and tie in a scoreboard video that looked like it may have been recorded in his Southern California backyard and offered his classic line from 67 years on the air that served as a sort of Bat Signal from Pasadena to Placentia: "It's time for Dodger baseball!"
Clayton Kershaw took the mound to his usual "We Are Young" by Fun. Between-innings videoboard shots cut away for live shots of waving fans tailgating from the parking lot at a Dodger Stadium watch party. And Dodger Stadium organist Dieter Ruehle's spirit danced throughout the first two games in Arlington through the magic of digitally recorded sound, especially his dramatic Beethoven's Fifth keyboard riffs when Kershaw and his mates delivered a strikeout.
It appears that when things flip and Tampa Bay becomes the "home" team for Games 3, 4 and 5, it may be in name only: Dodgers fans easily outnumber Rays fans in the stands, readily evident in the overwhelming "Let's Go Dodgers!" chants heard throughout the stadium.
"Dodger fans travel so well," a grateful Kershaw said after earning the Game 1 win. "They're everywhere. They always come out. And so, for as much as a home game as we would have liked it to have been to be at Dodger Stadium and have the 56,000 chanting, after everything that's gone on this season, to have 10,000-11,000 people in the stands and a good bit of them be Dodger fans is pretty cool."
At breakfast in a hotel lobby near the ballpark Wednesday, a flock of them mixed with others wearing, yes, Rays gear, including a young lady in a "Kiermaier 39" T-shirt. A couple in Dodgers garb struck up a conversation with two men wearing San Diego Padres caps.
The Padres guys lamented the team's late injuries to pitchers Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet.
The Dodgers couple graciously sympathized, and from beneath her blue Dodgers blue cap, the woman assured them that the Padres were "the one team we didn't want to play."
Meanwhile, the hot coffee was poured, the bagels were toasted and more smiles washed over the room. Community. It's what so many of us have missed in these social-distancing times.
For a time, it seemed the season wouldn't reach its final destination, especially in early August, when the Miami Marlins and then the St. Louis Cardinals were felled by coronavirus outbreaks that appeared to threaten an end to this abbreviated MLB campaign when it barely had started.
But the COVID protocols league officials put into place, and then subsequently tightened, worked. The testing, mask-wearing, players quarantining in road hotels…it all was inconvenient, and difficult, and at times maddening.
At this moment, however, as the pages flip on the October calendar like falling leaves, the payoff is here. And the relief and the joy is evident with every Kershaw slider and Arozarena homer, with every shot of Ji-Man Choi doing the splits to make another play at first base and Bellinger toe-tapping with teammates after a home run, avoiding the forearm smash that caused his shoulder to pop out the other day.
"The thing that's been obvious to me is how much the guys in the opposing dugout care about what's going on on the field," Morton said. "It would be one thing if everybody showed up every day and just went through the motions and said, 'Well, there's no fans here, it's a 60-game season, it doesn't really matter.'
"But fortunately, they gave the playoffs some teeth, they expanded it, and fortunately we're in a league of pros that care. So we looked across the field at the dugouts with the Blue Jays, Astros, Yankees, all those guys really wanted to win. That's why we came into this series with such emotion, because the guys we had to beat to get here were giving it everything they had.
"And it's been set up as a moment that still matters. People are watching on TV. People come to the stadium here. So all of those things have built it up in a different way, a less traditional way but a very unique and important way for us."
There are moments here that allow you to lose yourself completely in the World Series, escaping, for several minutes, what in 2020 has become our numbing reality. A Blake Snell strikeout, a Mookie Betts steal, baseball chatter as the doors open and fans rush into the park at the start of what surely will be another unforgettable night. It is beautiful. In many ways, it is therapeutic.
Then, you're snapped back. Just after the first pitch in each of the first two games, a voice came over the press box public address system: "This is a reminder that MLB requires wearing masks at all times, including when you're in your seats." And masked stadium attendants frequently sanitize door handles and railings with disinfecting wipes.
They're leaving the retractable roof open specifically so fresh air can flow through, something the scientists with whom MLB regularly consults suggested. Fans are trying to be good about wearing masks, but as you've surely seen on television, many of them could use a few reminders, too.
It is noticeable that, while they are sprinkled all the way around the ballpark, no fans are seated next to the dugouts, or in a couple of rows behind the dugouts. It is a visual reminder of one more buffer zone created to keep the players safe and play this season to conclusion.
No, it is nowhere near the same. Even the baseball bubble cannot keep away moments of eeriness from the ballpark to the restaurants, where once simple, automatic acts like picking up a salt shaker now produce caution and uncertainty.
Yet for these few days there remains, overwhelmingly, a distinct sense that people here are grateful for what is instead of obsessing over what isn't.
By virtue of what they do, professional athletes naturally, to varying degrees, are selfish and single-minded. They have to be. You cannot reach such an elite level in any profession without prioritizing your own work above the needs of those around you a significant amount of the time.
But this autumn, Morton, for one, has noticed a difference. "You care about your teammates," he said. "You care about the [coaching] staff that has spent tons of time trying to improve your game and those around you. The fans, the non-uniformed staff, especially in this environment this year with all the sacrifices that have been made by people who are not even directly affiliated with the game, like the security agents at hotels, the folks who work at the hotels here in quarantine. The clubhouse staff that's here in Texas on the visiting side who haven't been able to see their families for a month because they've been holed up in a hotel and haven't been able to leave their rooms [when not working at the ballpark].
"Things like that you start to realize, and when you look around and you see what's going on around you, it makes those moments all the more special."
Indeed, compared with what was just a week ago, even the smallest World Series crowd since 1909 seems like a bustling throng.
"Playing a playoff game with zero fans has got to be one of the weirdest, most bizarre things I've ever experienced in baseball," said Morton, 36, a 13-year veteran. "But at the same time, one of the most memorable things I've ever experienced in baseball.
"I'll appreciate everyone who made this possible as long as I live."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter to talk baseball.