The most jarring thing about being back at the ballpark is what you hear.
The music and announcements and walk-up songs are the same, but in those moments when the Oracle Park speakers aren't blasting, you hear EVERYTHING. There's a buzz that drowns out conversations when 30,000 people are in the same place, but it's gone right now, so you can hear Johnny Cueto yelling at himself after a missed pitch, you can hear the guy who relentlessly reminded Mike Moustakas that he lost the 2014 World Series (kind of a dumb one since he won the next year), and the fan who tried to woo slugger Nicholas Castellanos on Wednesday by yelling "Nick, the weather is like this all year, baby!"
That's a bit odd, but for the most part the first homestand felt normal -- or as close as you can get while wearing a mask -- which is a good thing. There are lots of new rules, but when you look out at the field, the product feels familiar.
The Giants spent months preparing for this homestand, and on the field, it went great. Here are some thoughts on how things went off the field, and where issues are popping up:
The Giants have a capacity right now of about 8,900, with seats distanced throughout the park and most of them zip tied to keep fans apart as they sit in pods. But they drew just 7,390 for the home opener, the first day in 18 months that fans were allowed in the park. It was down to 6,176 the next day, a perfect Saturday afternoon in the city, and just under 3,700 for two night games against the Reds. On Wednesday, the first weekday day game, they got back up to 6,409.
There are a lot of things at play here. First and foremost, we're still in a pandemic, and San Francisco is as restrictive as any city in the country. You have to either be fully vaccinated or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test to get into the park, and it's not at all easy to schedule a test in SF right now. About 60 percent of the city's residents have at least one shot, but you need both and two weeks of clearance.
"I think probably the most important measure is people's comfort level in coming out to baseball games right now," manager Gabe Kapler said on Tuesday. "I think we have the expectation that people are just going to flock once we open up the doors, but I think there's still a significant amount of trepidation and I think last night was an example of that."
There are also transportation issues for a lot of people who normally would not drive all the way to the park, and if you do drive and try to find a spot nearby, you're looking at $50 at most garages. Tickets are sold in pods and were rolled out in a new way, and the resale market has been impacted by those factors and the health rules.
At the same time ... this might not only be about ease of getting into your seat.
The Giants were seeing drops in fan interest before the pandemic, and it's been two years since they last gave an update on their season-ticket base. They had 26,000 in 2019, but the number is clearly much, much lower after two more losing seasons and a pandemic that impacted a lot of wallets.
The Giants haven't had a winning season since 2016 and haven't added a marquee free agent since the new regime took over, instead using a coaching staff as their main selling point over the last year. They're rebuilding in a smart way, but it's not an exciting process to follow, and because of the pandemic we never got an indication in 2020 of how the fan base currently feels. There's also a political factor, with some on both sides of the aisle getting angry over the past year.
It shouldn't be long before anyone in the Bay Area who wants a vaccine has gotten two shots, and the state's rules are expected to go back to normal in June -- outdoor facilities are getting bumped to 50 percent capacity today. It'll be fascinating to see if the fans return.
A New Look
The Giants were supposed to extend their nets all the way down the lines in 2020, but because they didn't have fans to worry about last year they waited until this season. It took just four games for the new configuration to come into play.
Austin Slater channeled a former Giants right fielder, screamed YOLO and went full throttle after a fly ball on Tuesday night:
"Well, we know the net is strong enough to catch baseballs. I don't know if anybody was quite sure how it would do catching a human body," manager Gabe Kapler said, smiling. "I appreciate the sacrifice, having seen Derek Jeter jump into the stands and go face-first into the seats, and seen so many different players run into walls and fences and sacrifice their bodies. I just think it's the ultimate indication that winning is really important to our players."
The catch didn't count because the ball skimmed the net on the way down, and Kapler said the ground rules include the fact that you can't use the net to climb up to try and catch a ball. But that net should still come into play occasionally, aside from serving the purpose of protecting fans. It'll be a lot easier for Slater, Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson to go hard toward the wall knowing that they can end up in a net instead of flipping over onto concrete or seats.
There have been a lot of obvious and subtle changes to the ballpark since 2019, and the Giants did a really nice job. I was out near the visiting bullpen before the home opener and it was an extremely popular spot for fans.
The All-Important Food Discussion
Look, someone had to do the dirty work, so I spent most of this homestand testing out various food options. Chicken tenders, nachos, pizza, garlic fries, even a pretzel. It was a tremendous sacrifice.
Ordering is done on your phone via the ballpark app, and overall it was a positive experience. I used it seven times on the homestand and only had one issue; when I got to a concession stand Tuesday night for a cup of coffee I had ordered, they didn't have my ticket and insisted that I was in the wrong place. Several other people were being told the same thing, even though the app directs you to the exact concession stand where your food is waiting. On Wednesday, another writer in the press box waited 15 minutes for them to find a missing ticket for a box of popcorn. They never did.
I heard from a few fans who had other ordering issues, and just while standing around waiting, I saw one person who was given the wrong order and another who ordered a hot dog on the app and paid for it and then got to the concession stand and was told hot dogs were sold out.
It's totally fine to have glitches when something is rolled out for the first time, but I would recommend that the Giants add some staff before crowds get bigger. Some of the concession stands I visited were nearing meltdown mode on Monday and Tuesday, when there were very small crowds. It also probably isn't a bad idea to just bring the old system back in addition to the app, because fans aren't following distancing rules in line, anyway.
Also, put more toppings on the nachos, please!