As the song says, when you go out to the ballpark you’re hoping for peanuts, Cracker Jacks, and a win for your home team. The game attracts all, regardless of background, ethnicity, sex, creed, or fame. Actor Humphrey Bogart was so enamored with baseball, he once said, “A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.”
For many fans of baseball, visiting a stadium is about more than just catching a game. It’s considered America’s national pastime, and the stands offer the chance to catch-up with old friends and make new connections and memories.
But in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic surging and spreading, Major League Baseball (MLB) teams belatedly kicked off their seasons in parks and stadiums with silent stands and empty seats.
“It’s surreal to be in Busch Stadium and have a game with no guests,” says Phil Melcher, CPP. Prior to the 2020 season, Melcher, security director for the St. Louis Cardinals, estimates that the Missouri ballpark would host roughly 40,000 guests on game nights.
Although MLB was able to provide teams with crowd noise recordings from games in previous seasons and parts of the stands were filled with cardboard cutouts of players, fans, and even dogs and horses, Melcher says it just wasn’t the same.
While there was both hope and levity on the field as teams and fans explored new, socially distanced ways to root for teams, Melcher and other stadium security leaders kept their game faces on and began planning to adapt the ballparks and procedures so that fans and employees could safely return.
St. Louis: The Gateway City
Busch Stadium is part of a busy downtown neighborhood that usually sees heavy foot traffic regardless of game time. Across from the stadium is Ballpark Village, with restaurants and bars; the Robert A. Young Federal Building sits two blocks away; within a five-block radius, there’s the Gateway Arch and the Historical Courthouse; and about eight blocks from the stadium lies the Enterprise Center, home to the city’s National Hockey League (NHL) team, the Blues, and Union Station, with its own attractions, including a Ferris wheel and an aquarium.
“The way I have to look at security, it can’t end where my sidewalks end,” Melcher says. “It has to extend beyond that because you’re looking at the lifeblood of downtown.”
He adds that because the neighboring venues are dependent upon the safety of the area, the Cardinals see benefits in being a good neighbor, making connections, and forming relationships with nearby businesses. For example, when Melcher conducts a risk assessment for the stadium, he invites these neighbors, “so we have kind of a shared security posture, so we’re all benefitting, we’re all on the same sheet of music in what we’re doing. I think that’s really important.”
This became even more important in the lead-up to the 2020 season, with Opening Day originally scheduled for 26 March.
But the MLB postponed the season by three months while it worked on protocols for games and players aimed at mitigating exposure to COVID-19, as well as trying to secure a labor agreement with the MLB Players Association. The league cut the number of games from the usual 162 down to 60.
In that interval before the season, Busch Stadium’s gates were closed, and approximately 90 percent of staff were ordered to work from home.
But security guards remained at their posts, partly to discourage trespassers because of rising frustrations in the city.
St. Louis was immune to neither the pandemic nor incidents of civil unrest that marked the summer of 2020 in the United States and other countries. The stadium and other businesses became part of the backdrop to rallies for Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests against law enforcement’s use of excessive force. Some protests turned violent, and day-to-day crime increased, especially as the downtown area was largely devoid of people. There were also incidents of drag racing on city streets and an increase in violent crime with police logging 114 assaults downtown in June 2020 alone, according to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Some of the rise in crime could be the result of economic turmoil in the region caused by the pandemic. Melcher says he understands those frustrations and was seeing them firsthand within his second family—the Cardinals organization. No guests at the stadium meant the disappearance of a major revenue stream, which in turn meant that people were laid off from the organization. Melcher, who regularly led in-person awareness and security classes for the team and its staff prior to the pandemic, says that the last year hit them hard. “For us, it’s very personal, the losses of people who have since been laid off,” he says.
The impacts of the coronavirus on the team have been more than financial, Melcher admits, as the virus killed some stadium employees and former staff. Compounding frustrations further marked the team. In March, Melcher says, he attended a wake for a former member of the stadium’s grounds crew who died by suicide.
“This is all a very real impact on so many levels that we’ve had to really rally behind each other, be there for each other, and let others know, ‘Hey, we’re here for you if you don’t feel right, even if you just need to talk or scream, throw something at the wall. If you need a friend, if you need somebody to be there, I’m here for you,’” Melcher says.
Online and video chat platforms have helped in maintaining communications with staff, not only for support and morale, but also in enhancing security operations while maintaining social distancing. One recent Zoom call included organizers of a local homeless shelter, so the security team could determine how to best interact with an increasing homeless population in downtown St. Louis.
“They may need some other kind of intervention that law enforcement isn’t the right call to make,” Melcher says.
He adds that he finds these education sessions useful for his team, helping it learn to start a conversation instead of a conflict with at-risk persons.
“Does it come from a position of authority or does it come from a more human perspective where you’re trying to relate to them and trying to share some human commonality with them that doesn’t denigrate them or make them feel less of a person? It’s a safer kind of environment for my security staff as well because it’s less confrontational,” he says.
From Melcher’s view, de-escalation has become more crucial than before. Although fans were not admitted into the stadium for the 2020 season, vehicle traffic was prohibited in surrounding streets for viewing parties with big screens showing the games. Along with protecting guests from more traditional threats—such as drugs or incidents with firearms—security maintained social distancing measures among guests outside.
Toronto: The City That Works
For the Blue Jays, home is usually Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. But when the Canadian government closed its borders in 2020 to try to lessen the spread of the virus, the team moved to nearby Buffalo, New York, to keep playing against other clubs. And although Buffalo’s Sahlen Field sits on the U.S.–Canadian border, the team started out the 2021 season even further away in Florida.
According to Mario Coutinho, vice president of Stadium Operations and Security for the Toronto Blue Jays, the team’s security department has made the most of its different settings to test how its pandemic efforts can adjust, depending on regulations and regions.
“Working with the protocols that Major League Baseball has provided to our players, we’ve developed a pretty comprehensive plan,” Coutinho says, adding that he looks forward to applying that plan to Rogers Centre. “In the meantime, we’re adapting that for Florida based on local public health guidance, and also another plan for Buffalo.”
While the MLB has established some baseline protocols for clubs, every city and region is different in what they ask citizens and businesses to do. But two areas that Coutinho sees as universally agreed-upon practices among ballparks are cleaning protocols and health checks.
“All our staff—whether you’re an usher or a security guard or concession worker—will become health capacitors,” Coutinho says. “We’ll have to do our part to ensure that everyone sees us going the extra mile to ensure their safety.”
Coutinho adds that the pandemic seems to have accelerated the pace of technological developments and adaptation of existing technologies for security protocols. For example, shifting its fans to digital instead of paper tickets offers the team insight into trends that can help it improve the facility.
Coutinho notes that when they return to Rogers Centre, this data analysis will be highly useful—such as for knowing when and where to adjust staff numbers so bottlenecks do not build up at more popular entrances. The stadium’s location in the downtown region lacks significant parking spaces for guests, who instead largely use the city’s public transportation system. However, on previous game days, this also meant that large numbers of guests arrived in waves and clustered at entrances, waiting to scan their tickets, walk through a metal detector, and have their bags and persons searched.
Like Busch Stadium, the Blue Jays also maintain partnerships with other groups in Toronto, including law enforcement, emergency responders, CN Tower, Social Bank Arena, Ripley’s Aquarium, and the city’s transportation departments. This network, which shares information on events and security matters, has allowed for the development of “a unified approach to managing our events,” Coutinho says.
The partnership with law enforcement and other city departments means that Coutinho can coordinate on any surveillance of potential threat actors. The stadium’s camera system along the perimeter can also assist with monitoring for potential threats and crowd management.
“By testing some of these measures in Florida, it’s allowing us to see what works, what doesn’t work, where we’re focusing our staff and communications strategy, physical markers, messaging,” Coutinho says.
Philadelphia: The City of Brotherly Love
Before COVID-19 and 2020 had stadium security shifting its focus to pandemic protocols and hygienic thresholds, it was learning from other types of incidents and attacks.
September 11 was the “start of a lot of my colleagues’ careers in the sports security role,” says Sal DeAngelis, security director for the Philadelphia Phillies. “A lot of us worked in ballpark operations, me included, and when 9/11 happened a lot of us got thrown into a security role, even without a security or law enforcement background. We learned quickly, but we’ve been honing our craft for the last 20 years.”
Subsequent attacks—including the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013, a suicide bombing at a concert at Manchester Arena in England in 2017, and the mass shooting at a 2017 music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada—further shifted security postures at sporting and music events.
Along with reacting to new threat tactics, DeAngelis and the rest of the security team at Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies play, work on being proactive by researching trends and implementing technologies. Like the other ballparks, they also maintain partnerships and communications with their neighbors, many of whom share similar security challenges.
Citizens Bank Park is part of the Philadelphia Sports Complex, which also includes the Wells Fargo Center, where the city’s NHL and National Basketball Association (NBA) teams—the Flyers and 76ers, respectively—play; Lincoln Financial Field, home football stadium for the Eagles; and Xfinity Live!, an entertainment, dining, and shopping center. The security leaders from these sites constantly share information, from suspicious people or vehicles to drug detection to social media monitoring. DeAngelis says that their communication is sometimes informal, but nevertheless effective, crediting the respective organizations for buying into security.
Unlike Busch Stadium and Rogers Centre, Citizens Bank Park is more removed from the city’s walkable neighborhoods with shops, restaurants, and bars. But like the other ballpark security leaders, DeAngelis says he understands the importance of relationships with groups based outside of the Sports Complex.
“We’re in constant communication with the Philadelphia Police Department,” DeAngelis says. His department also regularly connects with the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, a regional fusion law enforcement monitoring program that gathers, analyzes, and shares threat intelligence.
Beyond regional partnerships, the ballpark’s security team is also familiar with U.S. federal agencies—including the FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Secret Service—because, prior to the pandemic, the site was a venue for concerts, outdoor NHL and American Hockey League games, and political events for presidential campaigns.
“I believe they were successful events because of our relationships with our law enforcement partners,” DeAngelis says of the non-baseball events. “Nobody is meeting anybody for the first time when there’s an event at Citizens Bank.”