Every summer, fans come for the bounce houses and basketball courts, the movie characters and mascot antics, the fireworks and the fully loaded fries. Oh, and they might see some baseball, too.
As a general rule, Minor League Baseball isn’t about the game. But this season it will have to be.
The deadly coronavirus that caused all of the 2020 season to be canceled has not yet been dispatched. And until the risks caused by it and all of its variants have been minimized, minor league teams across the country — including The Salt Lake Bees — will be reluctant to host many of the activities and antics that have long made them popular draws.
But that’s leading with the bad news. The good news is that they will be letting fans through their gates once again, even if the experience will be a little different.
“One of the staples of minor league baseball is all the fun and games you do. This year it’s going to be more about coming to a baseball game,” said Marc Amicone, the Bees president and general manager. “It’ll be about being outside, enjoying a baseball game and a hot dog and, you know, spending some time with your friends and family.”
Take me out to the ballgame
With people eager to make up social outings lost to COVID, Amicone believes that will be enough to fill the seats, which will already be in short supply. In fact, when tickets went on sale earlier this month, the Bees — the Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Anaheim Angels — sold 1,000 single-game tickets within the first 30 minutes.
“I think,” Amicone said, “we’re all getting cabin fever, so to speak.”
Smith’s Ballpark can seat about 14,500 fans, but only about 3,200 will be let through the gates when the Bees open the season May 6 with the first in a six-game homestand against the Reno Aces. That count includes seats in the main bowl — grouped in pods of two, four or six — as well as spots on the outfield berm, where squares will be painted in the grass to accommodate groups of four to six people. Masks will be required in all areas in accordance with both city and MLB protocols.
The club will evaluate its capacity on a monthly basis, Amicone said, while also strictly following health and safety guidelines and those set out by the MLB. For that reason, he said, tickets on the website are only available through June 1, even though the Bees’ final home game is currently set for Sept. 14.
“Things are changing, it seems like, every week or every couple of weeks,” Amicone said.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks
Bees tickets can only be purchased digitally this season, which is one change Amicone expects to stick around for seasons to come. Another adaptation that might have staying power is the process of ordering food. Fans can scan QR codes placed around the stadium to bring up a menu. They then can order food from their phones and will receive a text when it’s ready.
Cash will not be accepted anywhere in the stadium nor in the parking lot. Machines that can convert cash to a debit card will be available.
Root, root, root for the home team
Bees fans who have attended their games for years might feel a little penned-in by the new restrictions, and Amicone can empathize. MLB’s rules regarding associating with players are so rigid that even he likely won’t be able to go onto the field nor speak with players or umpires face to face.
Keeping players isolated is necessary in a sport in which they change teams within an MLB club’s farm system with fluidity and where one case of COVID could easily bloom into many. For that reason, Amicone said he expects fan interactions “pretty much won’t happen.”
“We have to have a buffer zone that [separates] players from the fans,” he said. “Once the players get here, there’s areas that only the players can be out there.”
That means no local celebrities throwing out the first pitch. It means no Little Leaguers taking their positions next to the Bees around the infield. It also means no basepath capers from Bumble, the team mascot. Bumble also won’t be allowed to roam the stands as usual and may be bumped to an off-field stage.
It won’t be the typical minor league experience, but Amicone expressed hope that being forced to experiment might actually lead to a better one.
“I think we will learn some valuable lessons as to how we operate,” he said, “and I think we’ll just get better.”
If they don’t win it’s shame
Not all of this season’s changes can be pinned on COVID-19.
MLB reorganized its farm system last year after letting its Professional Baseball Agreement with Minor League Baseball expire. It now requires MLB teams have no more than four affiliates, cutting the total teams from 160 to 120. It then reorganized some of the teams, moving them up or down levels depending mostly on their location and the level of teams nearby.
The Bees, which have been the Angels’ highest-level farm team for 20 years, barely felt a ripple.
The same Double-A squad that has been with the Angels since 2017 will feed players into Salt Lake, though it has been renamed the Rocket City Trash Pandas and moved to northern Alabama. The caliber of play shouldn’t change either, with the players still just a step away from the big leagues.
In terms of organizational changes for the Bees, the biggest ones will take place in the wings and mostly go unnoticed by spectators. That includes building a locker room dedicated to female umpires and staff as part of Salt Lake’s franchise contract with MLB. The team will also have to undertake frequent testing of players and staff for the virus, the details of which have not yet been finalized by MLB.
After a year of having no baseball, Amicone said those hoops do not seem too high.
“I’m really looking forward to getting started,” he said, “and playing baseball at that high level again.”