NOEL KING, HOST:
It's opening day, the start of a new baseball season, but when fans get to the ballpark, it will look and feel very different this year. Here's NPR's H.J. Mai.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Strike three - Dodgers have won it all.
H J MAI, BYLINE: For Didi Reed (ph), opening day marks the long-awaited return to her beloved Dodger Stadium, home of the 2020 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers. But going to a baseball game in 2021 will be noticeably different than from what it was just two years ago.
DIDI REED: Well, yeah, I'm going back, but I don't even know what to expect when I get back.
MAI: Reed started working at the ballpark in 1991 as a cashier. She was only 18 at the time. Nowadays, she manages one of the bars. Last year, just as baseball was gearing up for another opening day, the pandemic hit, and shortly thereafter, Reed and nearly 40,000 other stadium workers across the country found themselves without a job.
REED: It was just stressful every day just wondering, are we going to have enough to pay our rent? Are we going to have enough to pay our bills, you know, to buy food? It was scary.
MAI: Now baseball is back, but fans and staff will have to adjust to a new reality, which includes mandatory mask requirements at all 30 ballparks. Attendance limits have also been put in place at virtually every venue to allow social distancing. The Texas Rangers will be the only team to allow full capacity for their home opener. The 29 other teams have kept attendance at or below 50%. The Washington Nationals will open their season in front of a mere 5,000 fans. That's a far cry from the roughly 42,000 that the stadium can hold. There will also be changes to how fans can get a hold of their favorite ballpark food.
JONATHAN STAHL: We want to limit the interaction between our staff and our guests, which is something that we generally never think of because we want to increase the interaction between the staff and our guests. But in this situation, safety's got to be the No. 1 priority.
MAI: Nationals executive Jonathan Stahl has been working with food and beverage vendors to make the new season safe. Fans can now order items using mobile apps instead of standing in line. Some ballparks will even be offering in-seat delivery. And with cash payments eliminated from baseball, the time-honored tradition of passing a $20 bill down the aisle could become a thing of the past. And so could this...
UNIDENTIFIED VENDOR: Ice cold beer.
MAI: Though some ballparks will allow vendors to roam the steps, others won't. This will be especially difficult for those vendors who rely on their showmanship.
VINCE PESHA: We have singing vendors. We have people that are actors. So, you know, we have a lot of people that are characters. And part of the job is a character.
MAI: Vince Pesha would know. He started out selling peanuts at Chicago's Wrigley Field in 1969, and he fondly remembers his first day on the job.
PESHA: I was happy I made $40, which in my opinion was a lot of money at the time.
MAI: After more than 25 years at Wrigley, Pesha now represents his former co-workers as a union official. And despite the enhanced safety protocols, Pesha says some vendors remain concerned about COVID. But Major League Baseball needs fans to get back to the ballparks to make up for last year's pandemic shortened season. So providing fans with a positive experience is key.
STAHL: Hopefully by the summer or the fall, we'll be, you know, as close back to normal as possible.
MAI: And that hopefully means packed stadiums and no more worries about high-fiving strangers. H.J. Mai, NPR News.
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