The cardboard cutout revolution is real

Teams and fans are embracing a new craze

July 30th, 2020

If a baseball game is played and no one is there to see it, was it ever really played?

That was the philosophical question when the coronavirus delayed Opening Day until July and necessitated social distancing between players in the dugouts and masks out in public. It also meant that, for the first time since baseball became a sport with ticket-buying fans, it would be played to empty stadiums.

But teams got creative. Sure, actual people wouldn’t be in there, but the cardboard versions of them could be. Or, to be more accurate, Correx versions -- a material more similar to a yard sign than a child’s science fair project.

The Mariners were one of the first to announce their plans for the cutouts -- or “Seat Fleet” as the team calls it -- to be placed in the stadium. After seeing European soccer leagues get creative with their crowds, the Mariners got to work.

“We have a long-term relationship with Rainier Industries, which is right here in the Seattle area,” Mandy Lincoln, the director of marketing for the Mariners, told as she took a break from adding more butt-less fans into seats. “We’ve been partners with them for 30 years. We took it to them and said, ‘How do we make this happen? Can you print it? Can you upload photos? Can you do the purchase flow?’ It took a good couple months of working with not only Rainier Industries, but also Major League Baseball to get everyone on the same page of how to make this work.”

It’s a story shared by every team in baseball: How to connect with fans and let them contribute to the season even when they’re not able to be there in person. Though not every team is using cutouts this season, many are using them as a way to help fans stay connected and raise money for local charities.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have sold over 8,500 fan cutouts this year, raising nearly $1.5 million for the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation. Because this is L.A., the seats are also crammed with celebrities, who asked the team for their traditional spot.

That means former "Entertainment Tonight" host Mary Hart is in her regular spot behind home plate, with famous panama-hat wearing Dodgers scout Mike Brito beside her. Dodger Stadium regulars Arsenio Hall, Rob Lowe, Bryan Cranston and George Lopez are in the crowd, with former players like Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez also on hand. The team assures us that the next homestand will have even more big names making their appearance, so keep your eyes peeled to the background between pitches.

The Twins saw the cutouts in other ballparks and took a slightly different approach: They chose big heads. The team started with former players, who made their big debuts during Tuesday night’s home opener, before offering the opportunity to their fans.

“When we looked across the league, we noticed that everybody was doing cutouts. I think at the Twins we're always just looking how we can do things differently. We thought this was a unique play on a trend that was already happening and putting our own spin on it,” Mitch Retelny, the senior manager of special events and promotions for the club, told “So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive on the Big Head concept that we're running with.”

The team chose over 80 former players to help celebrate the team’s 60th anniversary of playing in Minnesota, and that includes the big names Twins fans would expect: Joe Mauer, Bert Blyleven, Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett are all in their seats watching the team play.

But there are a few you may not expect. Nick Punto is on hand, and so is Boof Bonser. And, of course, behind home plate, is Big Sexy himself, Bartolo Colón. Though he pitched only 15 games for the team in 2017, he made his impact felt immediately.

Retelny admitted that he had a hand in making sure Colón was included, knowing that fans -- both in Minnesota and on the Internet -- would be quite pleased to see him again.

“We had him for half a season, and in that time we even did a Big Sexy Night, where we did a special ticket package with a shirt,” Retelny said. “I knew that including him would just add to the fun and captivate people to talk about it, too, which is always part of anything on my end of the promotional side. We're just trying to have fun. Including Bartolo -- Big Sexy -- in there is just another way to add some fun.”

But, of course, we’re leaving out the thing fans are most passionate about: Their pets.

“One of the very first questions when we announced this thing was ‘Can I upload a photo of my dog?’ Lincoln said. “I was like, ‘Um, I guess, if you have permission for the photo, then sure,’” Lincoln said with a laugh.

What the team got was so much better. “So, I was expecting dogs and figured cats were going to be in there as well. And yesterday I opened up a box and was sorting through them and there was a horse.” Lincoln couldn't help but laugh at that one.

The first weekend of the season wasn't even over when pets played a big part in the action. The New York Mets’ Jeff McNeil had a cutout of his dog placed in the outfield at Citi Field -- where she was rudely greeted by an Adam Duvall home run.

When it comes to unexpected sightings, the A’s may just have the rest of baseball beat. Known for the unique fan experience at the Oakland Coliseum, where the familiar sound of the drums in right field are a constant feature, team president Dave Kaval wanted to make sure that was still reflected this year.

“I think we've always been really proud of the experience that we have at the Coliseum. It's very unique. It's a home-field advantage. Our fans -- they're passionate, knowledgeable. They bring with them a lot of creativity with their flags and banners and cheers,” Kaval said. “We wanted to emulate that and create as close to that experience for our players as possible in this year where we can't have actual fans in the stands.”

The A's set up multiple cutout options -- including one for pets, visiting fans to be placed on Mount Davis, and another to raise funds for an ALS charity supported by Stephen Piscotty, whose mother passed away from the disease two years ago.

They added teddy bears in the seats, banners hanging in the outfield and even Charlie O, the team’s old mule mascot, in the stands:

Oh yeah, and they have Tom Hanks dressed up in his old uniform from when he was hawking hot dogs as a teenager in the 1970s, with his voice booming over the loudspeakers.

His inclusion came naturally as Hanks -- an Oakland native whose first real job was as a vendor in the Coliseum in the '70s -- and Kaval were emailing and texting.

“He was just like, ‘It’s really amazing what you guys are doing at the Coliseum,’” Kaval said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, well, we want to make it as real as possible.’ What better way than to have the voice of Tom Hanks selling hot dogs and peanuts like it was 1973 with Vida Blue on the mound?” Kaval said, laughing.

Each team’s plans are different -- though all are donating funds to local community and coronavirus-related charities -- and some like the A’s and Mariners are helping fans bring home a foul ball or home run even if they can’t be there to catch it in person.

If a ball smacks your cutout in the Foul Ball Section in Oakland, or in any of the seats at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, you’re getting that ball after it has been fully authenticated by ballpark staff.

Though Seattle began by adding fans into the traditional spots picked up by the TV cameras behind home plate and down the foul lines, demand has driven the team to start wondering if they’ll add fans in the outfield, too.

One thing is certain, though: “If we do end up going out there, and a home run hits it directly,” Lincoln said, “you betcha, we’re shipping them that baseball."