PHOENIX -- Jackie Bradley Jr. is not the only one coming to American Family Field this season.
Brewers fans will be there, too.
The City of Milwaukee health department has approved 25 percent fan capacity at American Family Field beginning Opening Day, with hopes to ramp up that figure, provided health conditions in Wisconsin continue to improve.
“People in the stadium just makes a huge difference for players, for the atmosphere. It's enormous,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I'm thrilled that we're back on the right track there and able to start in a good place and hopefully get more as the summer goes.
“It's a big deal for our players. It's a big deal for our fans. I'm happy we're able to start on a good note.”
At 25 percent, about 11,000-12,000 fans -- seated in pods and required to wear masks when they are not eating or drinking -- will be in attendance for the Brewers’ scheduled home opener against the Twins on April 1. The published stadium capacity is 41,900, but that figure does not include group entertaining areas, many of which have been added since the stadium opened as Miller Park in 2001.
The Brewers had initially asked for 35 percent capacity in a 350-page proposal submitted to the city last month, and worked with health officials to arrive at a compromise for the start of the season. That relationship is said to be very positive, and if health conditions continue to improve, the club expects attendance to rise. The same can be said for tailgating, which will not be permitted in the stadium lots at the start of the season.
First things first: The Brewers must redraw the stadium seating map to reflect this initial capacity figure and work to reseat season seatholders. Once that process is complete, the team will set plans for selling tickets to individual games.
“The reality is this is going to be the largest approved gathering in the state of Wisconsin in nearly a year,” Brewers president of business operations Rick Schlesinger said. “From [the Health Department’s] perspective, I don't think they had any substantive issues with our plan, but I think they wanted to start at a lower percentage. It's not dissimilar to a number of other MLB venues that are allowing reduced capacity at the start, and I think our impression from the Health Department is they're receptive to our plan of getting to 35 percent if the metrics they use to determine the decline of the COVID pandemic will be relevant.
“Also relevant, frankly, is that our fans are following the rules; that we're keeping our masks on in the ballpark unless we're eating or drinking, that we're staying in our seats and we follow the protocols. We don't try to do any rogue tailgates right off the bat. That will also be obviously a good benchmark and marker for the Health Department to recognize that our fans are responsible and want to enjoy the Brewers experience at American Family Field and can do so in a responsible and safe manner.”
More information on fan accommodations and safety rules can be found at brewers.com/COVID.
The Brewers are getting experience hosting fans in Spring Training. Thursday marked the Brewers’ second Cactus League game at home with 23 percent capacity at American Family Fields of Phoenix, and the early experience has been positive, Schlesinger said, in terms of enforcing rules about masking and limited carry-ins.
“We've actually, surprisingly, heard very few complaints,” Schlesinger said, “not only from fans who don't like wearing masks, but also some fans who are very sensitive and want to make sure that others wear masks. People are just following the rules. … I think there's a sense of responsibility that our fans have, and I think our fans are saying, 'Listen, if this is what's needed to get us to the ballpark and then this is what's needed to maybe increase that number from 25% to a higher number, let's do this together.’”
The Brewers hope there is a tangible benefit to fans in the stands aside from the revenue stream. Last year, the Brewers set dubious franchise records for batting average (.223, lowest in club history and 26th of 30 MLB teams) and strikeout rate during a season in which offense was down across the league.
One theory is that hitters seemed more impacted than pitchers by the empty stadium seats and the small sample issues associated with a 60-game season.
“I think we'll spend the rest of our lives hypothesizing about 2020 -- everything that happened in 2020, not just baseball,” Counsell said. “I wish I knew. I think it affected people differently. I don't know if you can pin it all on the hitters. I think it affected people differently. We're getting close to eliminating having to think about all that and trying to figure all that out, and that's probably the best news.”
He was sure of one thing: Nobody will take the fans for granted in 2021.
“If anything, it should make us enjoy the experience all that much more,” Counsell said. “That's how I've thought about it, understanding how special it is. The thing that I realized is, it's community. That's what it is. It's community. That's what's special about it and we missed it. We're getting a piece of it back. We're not getting the whole thing back but we're getting a piece of that community back.
“That's really special. It creates these magical moments which are the reasons why we love sports.”