For weeks, the Minnesota Twins’ spring training stadium in Fort Myers, Fla., sat frozen in place, ready to host a game but devoid of people almost entirely.
Back on March 12, the Twins were preparing to play the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game, and Hammond Stadium had been prepped and ready to go like any other day when word came down from Major League Baseball that the rest of spring training would be suspended immediately as the coronavirus spread across the nation. The Twins started packing immediately, scattering back to their respective homes.
But whenever Judd Loveland, the general manager of the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels, who play at Hammond Stadium during the season, walked into work, he found a stadium ready for baseball: WCCO radio was still played on the speakers by the box office, metal detectors were still out, concessions stands still set up.
“It was kind of a very eerie thing to be walking around the stadium that looks as if we could open up and have a game tomorrow,” he said.
Now when he comes to work, nearly two months after spring training shut down, he sees cars lining the parking lot rows that are named after Twins legends and people waiting to get tested for COVID-19.
As the novel coronavirus has shut down sports across the country, Minor League Baseball teams are left wondering when they might be able to return this year, if at all, with a start date for Major League Baseball not even clarified yet. But in the meantime, the Twins’ affiliates are finding plenty of ways to keep busy.
Loveland and the Mighty Mussels staff were in the middle of figuring out how they might be able to sell takeout food and meals recently when the CenturyLink Sports Complex was selected as a free testing site.
Now, the members of the Mighty Mussels staff who are not still working from home, are on hand cooking, packaging and distributing boxed lunches to feed healthcare and other frontline workers who are on site conducting testing. They have created a single-entry lane so employees can come in one at a time while on break and have spaced out tables in the press dining room for them to eat.
“It’s going to be a much different world and it’s going to take a lot more to do something that otherwise would be very simple to do,” Loveland said. “Something like this in the past with our catering department, if this was never a pandemic, we could do something like this with two people no problem. But it’s taken six of us to do it and we may be adding a seventh, so that’s how demanding it is.”
On Florida Panhandle, the Twins’ Double-A affiliate, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, have started adapting as restrictions in Florida loosen. The Blue Wahoos have expanded from curbside food pick-up to letting fans come into the stadium to dine at the ballpark while watching videos on the big screen.
By selling family meals, team president Jonathan Griffith said they were able to keep an extra 20 people employed. Now, as the state is starting to open up, the team has distanced tables, added sanitizing stations, and have two enforcers making sure everybody is following social distancing rules for the safety of fans and employees.
“Our mission as the Blue Wahoos is to improve the quality of life in our community, and we feel that’s what this is doing,” he said. “And if we don’t do it in the right and safe way, then we’re not meeting our mission, so we wanted to make sure we can do that.”
Griffith said the franchise is working on having local bands come out to play music and other entertainment like mascot races to keep fans engaged while they eat.
Eventually, as they perfect the process, they are planning on starting movie nights and fireworks shows at the park. While the events won’t cover all the money lost from not playing games, their focus is on keeping staff employed and supporting the community.
“We have been very upfront with our staff — 2020 will be a horrible financial year for the Blue Wahoos,” Griffith said. “Even if we have the greatest events and we do everything we can, it’s not going to make up for the 70 games that we’re missing out on, or even 35 games. … What we’re trying to do is make it more about the community and be in the community’s mind and help the community as much as possible.”
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the Twins’ Class-A affiliate plays, county restrictions aren’t quite as loose, so fans can’t actually enter the park. But the Kernels have put together a menu for fans to choose from, including their half-pound hot dog and half-pound bacon cheeseburger, and are encouraging fans to park in the upper lot and eat with a view of the park.
“You can see the stadium and have a parking lot date where you feel like you’re at the ballpark,” general manager Scott Wilson said. “We were just trying to make that carryout business sort of feel like you came to the ballpark, picked up your food and you were there. And that’s gone well.”
As the county begins to open up more, Wilson said the club has discussed spreading out picnic tables and inviting fans inside the park, but they haven’t yet moved toward that. In the meantime, he said merchandise sales online have been strong.
The team has been operating with a skeleton crew, and essential front-office employees have done the work they normally would have hired crews to do.
“We did everything that we would have hired people to do — pressure-washed, cleaned, went through all of that, and the stadium is prepped and ready for a game,” Wilson said. “The only thing we’re missing is a team to play on the field.”
With no team on the field, the Rochester Red Wings, the team’s Triple-A affiliate in upstate New York, has been busy staying in touch with season-ticket holders and advertisers, team president, CEO and COO Naomi Silver said, as well as maintaining an active social media presence, like all of the affiliates.
They’ve also started a curbside concessions menu, where fans can pick up items like burgers, hot dogs and chicken fingers from Frontier Field. And they are selling quarantine essentials, from hand sanitizer to Red Wings masks and a T-shirt that says, “Hope has Wings.” A portion of the proceeds from the shirts will benefit the United Way of Greater Rochester.
“It would be just what we need to see a little bit of baseball. Everyone would love that, but it certainly isn’t worth risking peoples’ lives,” Silver said. “I’m glad I’m not having to make this decision. We’ll do whatever is deemed to be appropriate, and we’ll make it through. All I know is when we can play ball, people are going to be hungry for it, that’s for sure.”
Though it would be difficult, the Red Wings are positioned financially to be able to survive this season without baseball. But Silver said she worries about other teams that are not.
That could include the rookie-level Elizabethton Twins, the team’s Appalachian League affiliate which is based in northeastern Tennessee. During the offseason, the E-Twins were included on a list of 42 teams that were suggested as part of a Major League Baseball contraction plan.
With coronavirus halting the sports world, contraction at this point seems unavoidable, and Chris Allen, the president of Boyd Sports, which oversees the E-Twins, believes that would spell the end of the Appalachian League.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a season this year. It doesn’t look good for us,” he said. And obviously next year doesn’t look good for the Twins here in Elizabethton, so we’re definitely concerned.”
For now, Allen said Boyd Sports employees have a food truck that they are using to feed help first responders and are otherwise watching their finances and working on “battening down the hatches.” They’re also organizing high school baseball leagues to play at their parks once allowable.
And as Minor League teams continue to dream up other ways to earn revenue, they’re eagerly looking forward to the return of baseball at parks around the country.
“People are asking every day when we think we’ll be back, and of course that’s a question that we really can’t answer right now,” Silver said. “But I think our fans and fans across the country are really looking forward to some baseball. It would be a great help and distraction from what we’re dealing with right now.”