Fear and touchless mustard at Nationals Park

The pandemic is still with us, but a new normal is on its way

A worker paints the MLB logo on the field Tuesday during a media tour of Nationals Park to explain the health and safety protocols implemented because of the pandemic. Major League Baseball opening day is Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A worker paints the MLB logo on the field Tuesday during a media tour of Nationals Park to explain the health and safety protocols implemented because of the pandemic. Major League Baseball opening day is Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Jason Dick
Posted March 31, 2021 at 6:00am

Even given how strange the last year has been — with its pandemic, civil unrest and political violence — it was worth a double take to confirm the name of the Washington Nationals official explaining COVID-19 protocols during the team’s media tour on Tuesday.

Fear. Scott Fear.

Yes. The name of the Nationals’ vice president for public safety and security is Fear.

As someone whose last name has often been used as euphemism or epithet, I’m attentive to these kinds of things. But seriously. Fear?

Except this Fear came not to spread, ahem, fear, but to mitigate it, calmly explaining to the two-dozen-plus members of the sports press at the Center Field gate what the team was doing to quell risk, prevent crowding, enable social distancing and keep people safe.

For one, no more paper tickets. Fans will get their tickets through the MLB Ballpark app, and those digital tickets will be assigned entry gates, which open two hours before first pitch, to prevent bottlenecks. Masks are mandatory.

“The safety of our fans is our utmost priority,” Fear said. Put another way, the only thing we have to fear, Fear said, is fear itself.

Lisa Marie Czop, vice president of event operations, explained how sanitizer dispensers are everywhere, that some kind of fancy ionization air filter system has been installed indoors and that bathrooms and other “high touch” areas will get extra cleaning.

A sign is seen on an outfield seat during Tuesday’s media tour of Nationals Park. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

After the presentation about seating, social distancing and sanitation by Czop, the loudspeaker blared Stevie Wonder’s funk masterpiece “Superstition.” Like a vice president of safety named Fear, another double take was in order.

“Very superstitious/Wash your face and hands/Rid me of the problem/Do all that you can.”

Moving right along.

Throughout the pandemic, the Nationals have leaned into being good citizens. The organization opened its facilities to World Central Kitchen, Chef José Andrés’ nonprofit, to help feed needy families and first responders.

Before last year’s election, it was one of the District of Columbia’s SUPER VOTE CENTERS (then, as now, their all-caps, not mine). Before Tuesday’s media tour, reporting on that was the last time I had been in Nationals Park. Covering the setup for the voting was a poignant moment for someone who sat in the rain on Oct. 30, 2019, watching on the field’s giant screen Game 7 in Houston, when the Nationals won the World Series.

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So the team kept busy, even as it had to bar the door to fans last year and keep the players from hanging out too much together.

And now, it’s all changing, albeit by degrees. The Nationals hashtag #ReOpeningDay reflects we are only inching back into the way things were.

A journalist records a television report Tuesday in front of the Commissioner's Trophy. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Local health protocols will keep Thursday’s opening day game against the New York Mets to 5,000 fans. It’s a sold-out game, as is the whole April homestand. Looking out in the stands, the small groups of people allowed to attend will have social distancing enforced by strictly assigned seating. How strict? The seats not in use are zip-tied in their upright folded positions.

Some of the changes under way before the pandemic and then accelerated by the pandemic look like they’re here to stay.

Digital tickets and the need to have a halfway decent phone for the MLB Ballpark app to work. Concessions and merchandise purchases will be cashless transactions. Picking up food will be a contactless one. How contactless? The team treated the media to a demonstration of a touchless mustard dispenser dressing a hot dog.

Another new thing: The Nationals are partnering with BetMGM to operate an onsite sportsbook, with a mobile app open to those at the ballpark and within a two-block radius. Pete Rose got banned from baseball for gambling on the sport. He would probably be amused by the signage in the concourse asking patrons to “Bet Responsibly.”

Some of the human elements of the game will be gone, at least for awhile. No kids playground. No fans asking for player autographs. The Racing Presidents and Nats Pack won’t be able to hang out in the stands with fans, taking selfies.

But we do get to go back to the old ballgame, albeit in smaller numbers. And at least through April, that means anyone coming will be guaranteed — yes, guaranteed — a Nats giveaway, be it a bobblehead, hoodie or other baseball tchotchke.

Lower numbers and assigned entry points mean that game giveaway anxiety is a thing of the past, at least for April.

A bobblehead of Nationals manager Dave Martinez is seen during Tuesday’s media tour. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It’s getting easier to imagine that it won’t all suck forever. This tour, the organization’s professionalism in addressing safety and overall trends all point to better times.

But punctuating the limbo-like, we’re-getting-there-but-not-there-yet nature of the present is my own programming note.

It’s been years since my spouse, Fawn Johnson, and I missed an opening day or home opener at Nats Park. We’re season ticket holders and baseball is a special thing for us and our family and friends.

But we need to miss it, and it’s for a good reason: On opening day, Fawn is getting her second Pfizer shot, and while I’ve had my first jab, I’m still well within the “not fully vaccinated” window myself. Better safe than sorry. We’re still really glad we’re almost back.