FORT MYERS, FLA. – An announced crowd of 2,122 fans Wednesday watched Jose Berrios toss two scoreless innings and Nelson Cruz swat a long home run in his spring training debut as the Twins lost 14-6 to Boston.
In the Twins' eyes, however, they were winners. Because they are playing games in front of fans at Hammond Stadium. And they are out to prove they can do the same at Target Field, beginning with their home opener on April 8 against Seattle, while doing it safely.
And the Twins aren't the only local pro team to work with Gov. Tim Walz's office on their startup plan. The Timberwolves and Wild would like to open their doors again, and Minnesota United and the Lynx aren't far behind. Sports teams across the country are seeking approval from their local governments to open gates and sell tickets to fans again.
The Wild, in particular, is pushing hard to bring fans back to Xcel Energy Center. And barring unforeseen developments, doors could be unlocked on some local venues within the next six weeks.
We have not vanquished the virus by any means, but the decrease in cases, hospitalizations, ICU bed usage and deaths coupled with increased vaccinations have encouraged more states to relax pandemic restrictions while showing others how bringing back a limited number of fans can be achieved. Nearly 30 teams across the NHL and NBA are allowing a small number of fans into arenas. Why not in Minnesota?
Some states have been more aggressive about allowing spectators than others. In December, I attended the Vikings-Buccaneers game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., and sat among 25,000 fans. We were spread out, wearing masks and spent the afternoon listening to the many Minnesotans in attendance complain about Dan Bailey's missed kicks.
Twins scouts were on hand last weekend at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, where 15,000 fans were allowed in to watch a high school baseball showcase.
We all have different tolerance levels when it comes to living with the virus. But allowing a few thousand fans into enormous arenas for Wolves and Wild games can be done safely. (I know what you're thinking: It might be a challenge for the Wolves to find a few thousand fans willing to show up for their games.)
Currently there are 11 NHL teams allowing limited numbers of spectators to attend games; there will be six more by March 23. Meanwhile, 14 NBA teams have opened their doors to fans, with five more coming by March 22. So by the last week of March, more than half the NBA and NHL will be open, providing jobs for arena employees and enabling neighboring bars and restaurants to gain pregame and postgame traffic.
Walz has navigated the state through the pandemic deliberately, taking criticism at times for dialing things back too much. In January, he extended bar closing times an hour, to 11 p.m., and increased restaurant attendance to 50% of capacity, both coming after the infection rate dipped under 4%. He has expressed a desire to allow fans at Target Field on Opening Day, and that day is approaching.
How about turning that dial one more click forward, Governor, and let more fans be fans again?
He can start with allowing more fans into Xcel for the final games of the state hockey tournaments (April 1-3), and the same for Target Center for state hoops (April 6-10). We can watch the All Hockey Hair Team videos online, but the games deserve to be seen in person by more than just a couple hundred people.
A limited number of fans are now being allowed into high school events, so there should be no problem with a few thousand spreading out in a much larger venue with limited risk — for all sports, preps to pros.
As spring nears and vaccines continue to roll out, it's reasonable to look ahead to what it will be like to sit in a stadium with fans again. It should happen here sooner rather than later, and become a significant checkpoint on the road to sports normalcy.