Vaccines bring hope, but it will still be far from normal for Royals fans in 2021

Just before the new year, the United States and Kansas City got some pleasant news, as the CDC approved COVID-19 vaccines for use. With this monumental “green light”, not only has shipping of the vaccine begun, but also the administration of it to health care workers, not just in Kansas City, but across the nation. That being said, while it has been a relief to see the vaccine widely distributed across the country, it is especially promising to see people get the vaccine in Kansas City, as it should give followers of this blog a little bit of hope that 2021 may be a little more positive than the nightmare that was 2020:

As a Royals fan, personally, it has been easy to feel hopeful that we will see baseball again in person at Kauffman Stadium soon. Just a couple of weeks ago, I renewed my “Keep” fan section tickets, reinvigorated not just by the potential of baseball returning to the K, but also with their new “voucher-style” system that will make it easier for Royals fans to maximize their ticket package value with busy schedules (if you are considering a flexible ticket package with some nice fan perks, I would highly suggest this package). On Black Friday, instead of going to a mall or some big outlet store, I instead went to Kauffman Stadium, where I ended up scoring a pretty impressive package of items from the Royals Team Store, as well as Royals Authentics shop, as evidenced in the tweet below:

Hence, it does feel like things are approaching back to normal in the Royals baseball world as the club gets ready for Spring Training. Royals pitchers and catchers will report to the Spring Training facility in Surprise in February, and hope in the squad’s chances for 2021 should be high once workouts begin, especially after a busy off-season which has seen multiple free agent signings (Mike Minor, Michael A. Taylor, Carlos Santana, and the return of Greg Holland).

However, while the vaccine news, and aggressive off-season from the Royals front office may get Kansas City baseball fans excited, we are not out of the woods just yet.

For much like last Spring after play stopped due to COVID, the battle between the owners and players over the number of games expected to be played in a season is already rearing its ugly head once again.

Photo Credit: Royals Reporter

Even though the news of COVID vaccines being distributed brought hope across the nation this week, especially to baseball fans looking forward to being back in a stadium by Opening Day, USA Today baseball writer Bob Nightengale posted this report below, illustrating the schism between owner and the player’s association in regard to when baseball should resume after the new year:

Here is a key excerpt from Nightengale’s piece, which may put a damper on Royals fans’ hope that baseball will begin on time in 2021:

“I don’t see a snowball’s chance in hell that spring training can start with protocols in place,’’ a National League owner told USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue. “I think there will be significant pressure for players to get the vaccine first before they go to spring training, and if that has to be moved back to April and play 130 games, so be it.

But to have 162 games, and start spring training at the normal time without players being vaccinated, that’s just crazy…”

“Major League Baseball, union at odds on whether start of 2021 season should be delayed” by Bob Nightengale; USA Today Sports

Some Royals fans may be saying “well, that’s the National League…maybe American League owners feel differently?” Unfortunately, Nightengale’s reports from the American League side are not much more optimistic:

Said an American League owner who also requested anonymity: “I don’t see any way spring training starts in February. Zero chance of that. I don’t care if we play 140 games, 120 games or 80 games, we have to make sure everyone is safe to do this right.’’

“Major League Baseball, union at odds on whether start of 2021 season should be delayed” by Bob Nightengale; USA Today Sports

In many ways, one can understand where the owners are coming from with their statements. While the vaccine did come sooner than expected (I think many didn’t anticipate coming until after the New Year), it is still not certain how long the vaccination process will take to be fully implemented across the nation. As of now, the ETA for everyone to be vaccinated seems to be between April and June, which is still promising, but not nearly quick enough for Major League Baseball, especially with pitchers and catchers roughly around Mid-February (most teams have declined to put a hard date on it). Thus, from a safety perspective for fans, it would make sense to push things back a couple of months to ensure that fans can come back to the stadium safely.

On the other hand, the idea of “shortening” the season is a controversial one, and honestly, the idea of condensing the season, even if it may only be 20-30 games, should be something that ought to concern not just baseball players, but all baseball fans. First off, while the owners are hiding behind the veil of “safety”, that push back date would be mostly geared toward fans, not necessarily players. Last year, baseball teams were able to play a full 60-game season and a full playoff slate with proper COVID protocols in place and little interruption, even with COVID affecting and shutting down everything else. In fact, according to Nightengale, labor guru Scott Boras argued that MLB teams could have played more games, but the owners wanted to limit their payouts to players, especially during a season with no fans in the stands:

As a Royals baseball fan, it would suck to not see the Royals at the K for perhaps the first month of the season (or at least not see the Royals play in front of an unrestricted Kauffman Stadium; considering Arrowhead Stadium has been able to pull of a crowd of at least 16,000 during a much worse time in the pandemic, I think Kansas City would do something similar for the Royals). However, I think baseball fans both here and across the nation would deal with that sacrifice not being in the ballpark for a month or two as long as a full baseball season were to incur. Baseball is meant to be a 162-game season, and anything less, for a second straight year, would only taint the game, as well as jeopardize what players and employees make, which isn’t fair considering how much they sacrificed to play baseball in 2020.

That being said, if 2020 showed us anything, it is that the owners will not concede quietly or easily, especially if there is no guarantee of fan revenue in April and May. And while Kansas City may have more flexibility for fans due to wonky restrictions in Missouri, teams in New York, California, and other highly-restricted states will not be as lucky, even if things should open up more by April. Considering most of those big market teams and owners are situated in bigger cities (and thus, more restricted municipalities), it is likely that they will carry a lot of weight in negotiations, which could jeopardize the start of not just the regular season, but Spring Training as well.

Photo Credit: Royals Reporter

So what should Royals fans expect when it comes to baseball in 2021?

At this point, it’s tough to predict how the MLB schedule will play out next year. A lot could still happen in the next month or two, and if a vaccine came sooner than expected, then it’s not out of the question to think that mass vaccinations could be implemented quicker than projected as well. I am not a scientist or a government official, but I think in a few months, things will be at least opened up a little, and we will start to see events again nationwide. Then again, after this pandemic, I think it will be years for this nation to get over the trauma experienced from this health crisis. It wouldn’t surprise me to see masks and social distancing still a norm at major public events (especially during Royals games at Kauffman Stadium), even with a nation “mostly” vaccinated.

Thus, I think baseball will be back at Kauffman Stadium in 2021. I think there will be a significant uptick in average attendance from 2018 and 2019 as well. Not only will people be excited to be back in a baseball stadium after nearly a year hiatus, but this Royals teams has already generated a lot of buzz, not exactly easy to do as the Chiefs continue to dominate the NFL for a third straight season. It will be exciting to see the K not only a bit more packed, but also a bit more lively as well in 2021, and by Royals fans, not fans of opposing teams (which seemed to be the trend in 2018 and 2019).

However, expectations need to be tempered, and honestly, it seems unlikely that Opening Day will take place at the K against the Rangers on April 1st in front of a full crowd (if a crowd at all). It’s just too hard to to see the player’s winning on this end, and with owners already harping for a “delay”, it seems like they will win out in one fashion or the other, in order to preserve their budgets. It’s a sad reality, but it’s hard to see it going any other way, especially after how negotiations went a season ago.

That being said, Royals fans have a lot to be excited about, especially considering how bleak things looked a month ago. If there was one thing that struck me when I visited the K on Black Friday, it was how much I missed being in the parking lot and seeing the ballpark. Yes, it was weird without anyone there for a game, but it was crazy to think that had been over a year since I had last seen a game at the K.

Thankfully, that absence from Kauffman will be over for me in 2021…

It just probably won’t be on April 1st, like I hope.

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