Padres, White Sox create their own energy in empty stadiums

Without fans in the stands at Major League Baseball stadiums, high-stakes games between skilled athletes lack sizzle. They’re short on emotional punch. Even this month with divisional opponents locked in a race for first place, games just aren’t the same, with all due respect to the cardboard cutouts.

Baseball just isn’t baseball without paying customers roaring at climactic moments or leaning over the guard rails to slap the side of the stadium walls. It’s bad for everyone, but it’s really been a shame for the fan bases in San Diego and Chicago.

The Padres haven’t made the playoffs since 2006. The White Sox since 2008. In a normal season, fans would be packing Petco Park in San Diego or Guaranteed Rate Field on the south side of Chicago to watch these long-suffering franchises contend for pennants.

Both the Padres in the National League and the White Sox in the American feature young stars in contention for MVP awards. And yet, in the stretch run of a season overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, the stadiums were empty Monday night during games with playoff implications.

Both fan bases were left watching on living room television as the Padres downed the Los Angeles Dodgers, 7-2, and the White Sox turned back the Minnesota Twins, 3-1. To both ball clubs’ credit, the Padres and White Sox not only have put together talented teams, but they have assembled groups capable of generating their own energy.

Even without the roar of the home crowd, both teams are doing as good a job as anyone at making the best of an awkward situation. As we all know, fans in most major sporting events can’t attend games because of restrictions related to the threat of the virus.

The Padres and White Sox both have shrugged it all off and just played ball. In the NL West, the Dodgers (33-15) lead the race and hold the best record in baseball, but the Padres (32-17) are right there, only a game and a half out of first. In the AL Central, the White Sox (31-16) are in first place, with the Twins (30-19) two games back.

Scott Merkin, who covers the White Sox for mlb.com, pointed out that no playoff berth in the AL was on the line Monday night in Chicago. At the same time, he wrote that the atmosphere, “even with pumped-in crowd noise replacing fans in the stands, sure felt like postseason baseball.” White Sox player Adam Engel agreed.

“I don’t know what the starters felt like, but being a bench guy, it feels like you are living and dying on every pitch,” said Engel, whose pinch single in the eighth produced the game-winning run. “You have a lot of emotion going with every pitch.

“A lot of guys say at the end of a playoff game [that] everybody is mentally and emotionally exhausted. Tonight wasn’t the real thing per se, but it felt pretty similar to that.”

In San Diego, the Padres rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat the Dodgers and ace Clayton Kershaw. Trent Grisham, who played for the Triple-A San Antonio Missions last year, hit a solo home run off Kershaw to spark the comeback.

Afterward, Ken Gurnick of mlb.com wrote that Kershaw stressed the importance of playing well against the Padres and finishing the season strong despite the unusual circumstances.

“These games matter,” Kershaw said. “If you want to be the (No.) 1-seed, it matters. To say, ‘Hey, I can’t get up for games, or there’s no adrenaline because there’s no fans,’ figure it out. I don’t want to hear that anymore.

“We want to play well, we want to beat the Padres and win the division. I think it’s important to play well the last two weeks of the season going into the playoffs. Maybe even try to create the atmosphere, as best you can, that these games matter to get ready for the playoff games.”

So, there you have it. Some players seem to feel the playoff vibe already. Others are trying to feel it, but it’s difficult, as Gurnick suggested, because the lack of fans “saps the electricity of a playoff race.”

It’s too bad for the fans, particularly in San Diego and Chicago. The season has a chance to be special. But even if either team rises up to win the World Series, a championship parade with thousands in attendance will be out of the question.

Unless they call in the cardboard cutouts.

Shortstops Tim Anderson (above) of the Chicago White Sox and Fernando Tatis, Jr., of the San Diego Padres have played their way into contention for Most Valuable Player honors in their respective leagues. Anderson leads the AL (and all of the majors) with a .369 batting average. Tatis, who played in San Antonio with the Missions in 2018, leads the NL in RBI with 40 and is tied for first in home runs with 15.

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