Cardboard cutouts, a quirk of pandemic baseball, let grieving fans honor loved ones
Channing Coy was watching a baseball game on television recently when she noticed the cardboard cutouts in the stands: photos of fans filling an otherwise empty stadium, a now normal sight in an anything-but-normal season.
“At first, the idea seemed a little silly, all these cardboard cutouts in the background,” she said. “But then it hit me.: Oh, my goodness, I could have Ryan and Dad at a game together again.”
Oracle Park, the bayside stadium of her beloved San Francisco Giants, always had been somewhat sacred to her family. It was the site of big wins and important milestones for the team, of course, but also for the family. And when the testicular cancer spread and Coy’s brother, Ryan Bartlett, died eight years ago at 22, it surprised no one that he wanted his ashes spread in McCovey Cove, the stretch of San Francisco Bay located just beyond the right field wall.
In the years since, their father, Tom Bartlett, couldn’t bring himself to enter the stadium. There were too many memories with his baseball-loving son. But then, one recent evening, his daughter drove to his house in Vacaville, Calif., snapped his photograph and told him she would figure out a way to get him there.
And now father and son are seated side by side again at Oracle Park for every Giants home game. Or at least their three-foot facsimiles are. “I would never have thought of something like this, but Channing really made something special happen here,” said Tom, 55. “It really is most likely the only way I’m going to be in the ballpark again.”
In baseball stadiums across the country, fans have been locked out this summer because of the novel coronavirus. But at many ballparks, they have been able to invite in loved ones, quietly honoring lives and memories with a photo in the stands — a speck on a mosaic that decorates the background of television screens for three-plus hours every night.
About two-thirds of the major league teams offered fans the chance to purchase the cutouts during this pandemic-shortened season. Some were available only to season ticket holders, and many teams directed part of the proceeds to charitable causes. Costs varied, but most fan cutouts could be had for $50 to $100, though a photo in a Dodger Stadium premium seating section cost as much as $300 and one above Fenway Park’s Green Monster carried a $500 price tag.
In Section 145 of T-Mobile Park in Seattle, there’s a photo of an energetic 6-year-old wearing a pink baseball glove in Row 7, Seat 17. Charley Beers always had designs on playing baseball, not softball, and she loved the Mariners. She knew all the players’ names and numbers, watched every game on television and was constantly begging her parents to make the trek from the family’s home in Olympia, Wash., to the ballpark.
Charley had just completed kindergarten when she fell ill in June 2010. Just a couple of days later, she died of complications from a Group A strep infection. “It was so rare,” said her father, Zach. “A doctor told us it’d be like getting struck by lightning three times.”
In the decade that has passed, the family has taken every opportunity to keep her memory alive, to remind people how Charley would befriend lonely kids on the playground, scrounge up loose change to buy others milk in the cafeteria and play or watch baseball at every opportunity.
“I guess we were afraid people would forget her and forget her name,” her father said. “So we’ve always been cognizant of any time we have an opportunity, we’d say her name. So when I saw the cutout thing, I thought immediately, ‘Yes, I’m doing that for Charley.’ ”
The cardboard tributes are usually quiet gestures, known and shared by family and friends. Some are hard to miss — more than three dozen pet cats have their own sections at T-Mobile Park — and others are hard to forget. Seventeen-year-old Joaquin Oliver was among the students killed in a school shooting two years ago in Parkland, Fla. His image is memorialized in 14 major league ballparks this season, his father’s effort to remember his son and raise awareness for efforts to reform gun laws.
“He was not only my son but my best friend,” Manny Oliver told the Los Angeles Times. “The fact that now we’re bringing him to the ballparks, in some way, makes me feel happy.”
The quiet stands are where the sentimental and the surreal can sit side by side this season, atypical ballpark scenes unfolding every night. In Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park — Section E, not far from home plate — a cutout of a golden retriever has an aisle seat that’s not far from all the action. Moose was a 13-month-old ball of energy when a tumor caused his organs to fail in July.
Avery Harwan, 25, had long planned to take Moose to the Phillies’ annual Bark at the Park promotion and had imagined him running all over the stadium.
“We were joking that he probably would’ve wanted to pick his own seat,” Harwan said. “He would’ve dragged us to where he wanted to sit.”
The cutouts, like baseball itself, has a way of connecting generations. At T-Mobile Park, not far from the cutout of Beers, two photos sit side by side: Bobbie Losey next to an old black-and-white photograph of a young ballplayer, looking very much like an image from an old bubble gum card. Losey’s father, Carl Pritchard, played semipro ball in the 1920s and died in 1980. Losey’s son, Kirk West, had sent her a card on her 92nd birthday that read: “You always wanted to take your father to a Mariners’ game but were unable to. … Until now.”
West had heard stories about his grandfather pitching against barnstorming teams of pro ballplayers, and when West was younger, it was his mother who was tossing him grounders. He lives in Australia now but streams the Mariners’ games, and he’s tickled by the idea of his mother and grandfather reunited nightly in the stands.
“Baseball’s been such a key part of our lives when I was growing up. It’s just always been there,” he said. “Who would have thought this would ever be possible? But somehow they’re right next to each other for an entire season.”
For many, the game has always had healing properties. Nicholas Hoyt was 8 when his father, Michael, died of a congenital heart defect. That was 30 years ago, when he and his siblings were still in grade school.
“Grandma and Grandpa took us to a bunch of Phillies games back then. It really allowed us to escape for a few hours,” he said. “We weren’t necessarily talking about Dad; we weren’t talking about our feelings. We were just watching the game.”
Years later, the family started a ticket program called Dad’s Seats. Working with Camp Erin, a nationwide bereavement program for youth, they helped send families grieving the loss of a loved one to Phillies games, allowing baseball to be the salve for others that it had once been for the Hoyts.
In January, Hoyt’s grandfather, Lou Siegel, died at 83, and in the spring, he started thinking about ways to honor the man who had always been there for him.
“My first reaction was that a cutout would be kind of cheesy — like, I wouldn’t want to pay to see myself up there,” he said. “But then I thought: ‘You know what? It’d be pretty cool to send Grandpa to a game one more time — maybe with someone else. Well, what about Dad?’ ”
The two are in Section 115, behind the Phillies’ dugout — the same seats the family gives away as part of its Dad’s Seats program. For Hoyt, it’s a season-long tribute to two important men, but it’s also a nightly reminder of all that baseball offers, even when the stands are (almost) empty.