The Texas Rangers’ new ballpark is a major improvement — if only people could see it
On a mid-November afternoon, the Field Suite at Globe Life Field was a beacon of summer dreams. Just 42 feet from home plate, the sights and sounds of the 2020 baseball season and many more to come at the Texas Rangers’ new home seemed easy to imagine: the audible pop of the ball in the catcher’s mitt, the natural sunlight basking the field in a luminous glow, and the bustling crowd at the Sky Porch bar high above left field, and all of it occurring in a climate-controlled environment.
For three years, the Texas Rangers had that vision. Of a new ballpark filled to capacity of 40,300, and a new era as the team approaches its 50th anniversary in Arlington.
All of that evaporated this spring when it became clear just how different baseball would look this year. When the sport shut down on March 12, the Rangers were just 19 days away from the regular-season debut of their $1.2 billion retractable-roof ballpark, which was constructed as part of a public-private partnership between the city of Arlington and the Rangers. That long-awaited Opening Day will now take place against the Colorado Rockies on July 24 in front of essential team personnel only, with crowd noise modulated by what amounts to a staff disc jockey. Even the notion of a celebrity throwing out the first pitch is complicated because, said Rangers Executive Vice President Joe Januszewski, “Who are you throwing out the first pitch for? You can’t do a first pitch on the field. Do you have to sanitize the ball? Wear gloves? It’s so strange, I don’t even know.”
After three years meticulously planning the fan experience during the stadium’s inaugural season, Januszewski has spent the past four months planning a new component: complex stadium seating configurations for smaller gatherings of fans that may be allowed to attend a couple dozen home games this season, if at all. Opening a new ballpark amid a still raging pandemic represents yet another unprecedented element in a MLB season like no other.
“Bittersweet is the right word,” Januszewski said. “You can’t sugarcoat the bitterness of not being able to have a full house for your first game. Our first game is literally going to have nobody there other than players, training staff and security. That is not what you dreamed up. But our day will come.”
Team executives stress that grave national health and economic concerns dwarf their issues. But while the Rangers’ concerns have mostly mirrored those of other teams throughout MLB, in some ways theirs have been more acute, both financially and emotionally, because so much has been geared toward opening the ballpark.
On Wednesday, March 11, the day the sports world changed, Rob Matwick, the team’s executive vice president for business operations, arrived at the nearly finished ballpark at 4 a.m. for a full day of events with media and season-ticket holders. He recalled how magnificent the ballpark looked illuminated in the predawn darkness. He drove home 15 hours later while learning that the NBA season had been postponed and calling longtime Executive Vice President of Communications John Blake to say, “We’d better pay attention to this.”
“Early on, I would wake up in the morning and, just for an instant, think that it was all just a bad dream,” Matwick said. “And then it would sort of kick in that, no, this is actually our reality here, and we have to deal with it today.”
The April stay-at-home order in Texas allowed for some important finishing touches to be made and helped bring the estimated number of man hours on the project to 6 million. The Rangers took advantage of the unwanted absence of games so they could address a list of outstanding issues. In March, that list totaled 17,000 items, many of which were minor, like fixing a door handle, but also included painting 5.5 acres of roof steel, working on the smoke exhaust system and checking the aim of the field lights. Less than two weeks until the new Opening Day, the list has dwindled to 200 items.
The ballpark also got to test out some of its operations thanks to the more than 50 graduations that were held at the ballpark this spring. Those provided full-time, seasonal and security personnel with a much-needed dry run of operations. Staff tested air conditioners, restrooms and connections related to scanning tickets at gate entries. In all, more than 100,000 family members and guests attended the ceremonies while socially distanced.
In late June, the Rangers sent a questionnaire to their season-ticket holders and their core fan base to gauge their desire to attend games in 2020 and to ask which safety measure would make them feel most comfortable. Among the findings: 86% of season-ticket holders “expect to attend a Rangers game at Globe Life Field during the 2020 season.”
Like many MLB teams, Texas has worked with the league office in planning where to display virtual or fixed signage. MLB provided the club with areas in foul territory along the first- and third-base lines where it plans to exhibit fixed signage. The Rangers are also planning signage on the back of the pitcher’s mound. And they are working with their regional sports network, Fox Sports Southwest, on virtual signage possibilities.
Before the pandemic took hold, the team had already sold about 95% of its 70-plus suites on multiyear contracts. The ballpark features several suite varieties, the most unique being the field-level ones behind home plate.
Regardless, the loss of ticket revenue from a season that was expected to warrant high demand among buyers cannot be overstated, and the impact is already being felt. The team furloughed employees last week.
“The short answer is there is no way to make up that revenue,” Januszewski said. “Like all baseball teams, we are going to get hammered in 2020. And frankly, there is going to be an effect for 2021. You’re getting one year’s worth of revenue for two years of season tickets. Baseball teams run on pretty fine margins. Ticket revenue is our largest revenue stream.
“You can’t truly make that up — it’s impossible. You’re taking a hit. It’s very challenging on our business. The fact it’s happening in a year that Globe Life Field was to have its debut, it’s bad luck, it’s unfortunate timing. There is no way to spin that.”
In March, Blake said he’d occasionally walk around Globe Life Field as a respite from the jarring reality of the pandemic. He was with the franchise when it played at a minor league ballpark, Arlington Stadium, which opened seven years before the team arrived from Washington in 1972. At that ballpark, fans had to scurry to their cars during rain delays because of the absence of a true concourse. He was with the team during its 26 seasons at the retro park adjacent to the new stadium, which debuted in 1994 as The Ballpark in Arlington and was called Globe Life Park when it closed its doors for good last September. (Team officials said re-using the stadium and delaying the new park’s debut until 2021 was not a realistic option, partly because the old stadium has already been reconfigured for football and soccer.) Summer day games were so hot there that former Rangers pitcher Brandon McCarthy deemed the field “the surface of the sun.”
Now there is a roof that takes all of 10 minutes to close. And the ETFE panels on the retractable portion of the roof allow natural light to flow through the ballpark. When they’re finally allowed inside, fans will be able to stand in the concession line and still feel connected to the game. And they will be able to linger on the main concourse in center field, look across the ballpark and see the game.
“For the way people watch baseball, we had to have a new park that had clubs and really nice premium levels for that fan who wants that experience,” Blake said before the pandemic. “Because it is climate-controlled with all the amenities, we will be able to take care of our fans in a way fans watch games these days. It gives us more opportunities to serve people better.”
But until fans can attend games, Januszewski acknowledged, it won’t feel like the ballpark is really finished. The Rangers are encouraging fans holding tickets to the original March 31 opener to hold onto them for April 5, 2021, the home opener next season.
Occasionally, Matwick will sit in the stands before driving home from the office, look around, take in the natural light, and envision the ballpark’s true grand opening.
“Even with this building being empty, it’s a magnificent structure that we can’t wait to show off to fans,” Matwick said. “Every once in a while, you just have to stop, look around and really appreciate what you’re a part of and know that there is going to be a brighter day. We will get through this. Hopefully we can get fans and families back to life as we know it.”