As MLB plays on, businesses around the ballparks that rely on baseball fight for survival
While the season presses on amid the coronavirus pandemic, the ban on spectators has created a perilous situation for businesses built around fans.
The cathedrals lie empty. Wrigley Field. Fenway Park. Yankee Stadium. PNC Park. Progressive Field.
Sure, their lights are on as Major League Baseball tries to squeeze in a truncated 60-game season amidst the pandemic. But no one is home, save for a few dozen players running around in masks under the din of artificial crowd noise in front of a handful of well-positioned cardboard cutouts.
Step outside the gates, and the artifice evaporates. Reality sets in.
As MLB sprints through two months trying to provide a small semblance of normalcy to its fan base and much-needed fresh content to its broadcast partners, the businesses in the neighborhoods surrounding the stadiums that rely so heavily on thousands making their way through the turnstiles 81 times a year are struggling, their futures murky.
The bars and restaurants in Wrigleyville managed fine during a World Series drought that lasted a century. But some might not make it to the other side of the pandemic.
“We rely on that 40,000-fan-a-game foot traffic and seasonal tourism each year in order for us to be successful, and unfortunately all of us right now are witnessing what life is like on the polar opposite side of that,” said Cristina McAloon, director of retail for Wrigleyville Sports.
Outside Fenway Park in Boston, parking spaces that go for $60 during a Red Sox home game can be had for $10 now. The pop-up village on Jersey Street that materializes from April through September has vanished. Souvenir shops stand idle. The postgame crowd that flows in singing “Sweet Caroline” is back home, watching on TV.
Businesses in the Bronx are are begging for help from the Yankees.
While some of those spots fighting for survival have been around for decades, Mike Sukitch is just hoping to make it through his first year. Sukitch opened the North Shore Tavern across from PNC Park in Pittsburgh in January. He expected a challenge. But he didn’t expect to be closed for three months. Still, he knows he has it better than others who have shut down for good.
Sukitch tries to be optimistic. It’s practically a job requirement when so much of what happens outside city-centered stadiums depends on what happens inside.
Right now, that’s not much. Actually, it’s less than that. For many, it’s time to turn to that familiar refrain, one that feels less like some well-worn cliche and instead serves a mantra for survival: Wait till next year.
All over Wrigleyville, businesses are counting pennies, searching for help and dreaming of a return to normalcy.
Looking for a bridge to survive until there’s a vaccine, some ballpark businesses are leaning on revenue streams or avenues that were previously lower on their priority list. Nisei Lounge sold cardboard cutouts of bar patrons — real and imaginary — mimicking the promotion at ballparks across the country.
“We’re down easily 80% from a regular baseball season,” said Pat Odon, the director of beer and baseball operations for Nisei. “But, weirdly, we’ve started doing merchandise. You never get into owning a bar to sell T-shirts, but that’s helping us get where we can make it till there’s a vaccine.”
Guthrie’s Tavern on Addison Street near Wrigley Field shut down for good in July, citing the pandemic.
“With the new restrictions set today for bars and the ongoing COVID restrictions, we don’t see a way we can survive,” it posted on Facebook.
Sluggers has indoor batting cages, dueling pianos and games like Skee-Ball. But it’s leaning on its kitchen right now.
“You know, instead of the live, get-crazy atmosphere,” said Zach Strauss, who runs Sluggers with his brothers David and Ari.
Their father Steve opened the bar in 1985.
“When’s the next time there’s going to be a dancer? When’s the next time people are going to feel comfortable sharing a baseball bat or the basketballs in the basketball machine?” Zach Strauss said. “So we are, we’re suffering pretty bad.”
The coronavirus pandemic has had a big impact on all kinds of businesses around Fenway Park — home of the Red Sox since 1912 — including restaurants and stores that were closed down for months and reopened to find fewer customers were eager to venture out.
But for the establishments surrounding major league ballparks, the resumption of play has been a special kind of sadness: They’re glad to have the games back, but they can’t make any money without fans.
“Never have I seen anything like this,” said Jeff Swartz, a manager at The Team Store, a 20,000-square-foot souvenir shop that’s been open across from Fenway Park for 75 years.
“It’s never been this empty unless they’re not playing,” said Swartz, who has worked at the store for 30 years. “Business is off as much as you can imagine. It’s negligible.”
Jersey Street, in front of the store, usually is gated off on game days to create a pedestrian mall that provides ticketed fans with extra space to roam that isn’t possible within the century-old ballpark. In addition to food stands, there might be a brass band, a stilt-walker and someone making balloon animals for kids.
This year, though all is quiet.
In downtown Cleveland, on a sunny Sunday as the Indians are about to play, it’s quiet except for the dull roar from fake crowd noise being pumped inside the ballpark.
In fact, it’s desolate and nearly deserted. At a club called Wilbert’s, no band has plugged its guitars into the amplifiers on stage there since mid-March.
“I can probably last another two months,” said Michael Miller, Wilbert’s 17-year owner and Cleveland-area native.
He didn’t get the usual bump from Indians opening day, a pseudo-holiday in Cleveland, when it’s typically wall-to-wall inside Wilbert’s, and Miller makes enough profit to pay his insurance and license fees for the entire year.
But Miller has managed to keep a couple of his employees working. Some financial assistance from the government has helped. A father of four, Miller, 62, is trying to stay positive. It’s all he can do.
He’s got a magic act booked in a few weeks, and it’s going to take some sleight of hand to keep his doors open in the fall if the state of Ohio doesn’t relax some of its COVID-19 mandates. Miller is allowed to be open only at half-capacity — about 100 patrons — and he’s not even sure that would be safe.
Around Yankee Stadium, the neighborhood has maintained some life through the coronavirus pandemic thanks to densely populated areas nearby. But that’s done little for shops and bars that exist to serve the 3 million-plus fans a year who venture to the Bronx for baseball and all that goes with that.
Yankee Tavern has been one of the busier businesses, but the outlook is still bleak for the watering hole that’s been open since 1927.
“What’s going on is devastating,” owner Joe Bastone said.
Bastone’s father was among a group that bought the bar and restaurant in 1964, and Bastone — 9 at the time — has been working there since. He became sole owner 35 years ago.
“Generations have come through here,” he said.
Once a watering hole for Yankee greats Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Yankee Tavern is the oldest place to drink in the area. It includes separate bar and restaurant spaces that routinely fill up on game days.
Speaking before a Red Sox-Yankees game last month, Bastone said he’d normally serve nearly 2,000 customers with baseball’s most historic rivalry in town. On this night, he had only about 20 customers, all seated under a tent outside.
The patio seating has proved popular. And the Tavern has salvaged some business via takeout and delivery. Still, Bastone said he owes over $150,000 in rent, has burned through his $31,000 in federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and had had to cut his staff in half, to seven.
In Pittsburgh, the saxophone guy — the one who plays theme songs from 1970s TV shows for loose change as fans squeeze past on the Roberto Clemente Bridge on their way to and from PNC Park — is gone. The line to take selfies next to Willie Stargell’s statue outside the left-field entrance to the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates is, too.
So is Rico Lunardi’s joint Slice on Broadway. He opened his franchise’s fourth store underneath the left-field bleachers in 2016. His lease expired last year, but the team granted him an extension as they negotiate a new deal.
When the shutdown began, Lunardi tried to stay open. But the double-whammy of no baseball and the decision by many offices in the vicinity to allow employees to work remotely meant the lunchtime crowd dipped, too.
By mid-June, with no fans allowed inside PNC Park, attendance for events at nearby Heinz Filed uncertain and government’s restrictions on capacity in indoor spaces in place indefinitely, Lunardi gave up. He found landing spots for 13 of the 15 full-time employees at the ballpark location and won’t rule out a return one day.
“If this didn’t happen, I would have signed a lease for another 10 years,” he said. “When you lose two revenue sources, it’s like having the rug pulled out from under your feet.”
Contributing: Jay Cohen, Jimmy Golen, Jake Seiner, Tom Withers