Duluth Huskies superfan Joe Garson received a call from team owner Michael Rosenzweig last week telling him the team wouldn’t play this season due to restrictions in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Garson said he was one of the first people, perhaps even the first, Rosenzweig called to pass on the sad news. That’s how much of a diehard fan the 77-year-old Garson is. Since the team’s inception in 2003, he hasn’t missed a Huskies game, and even though he knew this was coming, it hit him harder than a beanball.
“Disappointed is putting it very lightly,” Garson said. “Heartbroken would be a good way to put it. I became heartbroken when this virus came out and I could see no end in sight. When Mike called me, it was something I kind of expected, so I wasn’t too stunned, but the reality still hurts.”
No Northwoods League baseball at Wade Stadium in July? A year ago, that would have been unfathomable, but if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught, it’s to expect the unexpected.
Minnesota outdoor entertainment is currently limited to 250 people, but it’s per area, allowing the Northland’s dirt tracks to open to larger crowds if each area, such as the grandstands and pits, is kept separate.
With ballparks, it might not be quite so easy.
Scott Schreiner, St. Cloud Rox co-owner, said he is working hard on the concept. St. Cloud’s ballpark has a natural break in the seating, meaning they could easily split the ballpark into 250 and 250 with separate concessions, bathrooms and seating.
“The only thing the fans would share is the parking lot,” he said.
But Schreiner said the response he got from the state, while appreciating his effort, was that the current executive order “does not allow a stadium or other entertainment venue to exceed the 250 cap unless the venue has completely separate spaces with separate occupant capacities. That does not appear to be the case here.”
Despite the setback, Schreiner said he would keep fighting for it.
The Rox are part of a Northwoods League “pod” of five teams that began play Wednesday, including Minnesota teams based in Mankato, Rochester, St. Cloud and Willmar, as well as Waterloo, Iowa. Schreiner admitted it was a gamble, hoping the restriction will be loosened.
Rosenzweig said the Huskies couldn’t operate with 250 fans, 500 fans or even 750 fans without taking a loss. Garson certainly wasn’t blaming Rosenzweig for the Huskies’ season being canceled. The team held out hope, until last week, but with a surge in cases in recent days, it wasn’t worth the risk.
“Like I told Mike, the most important thing is what’s best for him,” Garson said. “He couldn’t operate like that without losing a fortune. I want him to stay financially healthy so we can have the Huskies here for a long time.”
Jon Winter agreed. If you think Garson is nuts, going to all those Huskies games, Winter is certifiably wacko. He hasn’t missed a Huskies or Duluth-Superior Dukes home game since the Northern League was reinstated in 1993. That’s a span of 1,044 straight games, including 596 Huskies games.
Winter feels that even with social distancing, Duluth’s spacious Wade Stadium could hold 1,000 fans comfortably. Like Garson, he wasn’t blaming the Huskies.
“I would have been really shocked if they had gone through with this,” said Winter, 53. “Only allowing 250 fans in the door is just a killer for them. And once again, they are treating every stadium like it’s a cookie cutter. I don’t understand from the state point of view of OK, 250 fans, where did they come up with that number? Because when it comes to social distancing, Wade Stadium is a lot different than a Mankato. Wade is a mammoth-sized park.
“But then again, would the fans be comfortable, especially older fans? The fans might just stay away anyway, whether it was 250 people in there or whatever number you pick.”
It’s not just the Huskies who are feeling the financial pinch, of course. According to the City of Duluth, rent from Wade stadium was $42,167.50 in 2019. This year, it’s $1,916.00. The Huskies paid $18,880 last year in rent. This year, it’s zero.
Other significant renters of previous years included the College of St. Scholastica, the Duluth Softball Players Association and the Arrowhead Fastpitch League. That’s money that’s never coming back. Not this year, of course. Everyone has had to adjust.
Winter lives just outside of Superior in the town of Lakeside. He said he has been staying busy with home improvement and with digital preservation projects and membership growth at the Douglas County Historical Society in Superior, where he works part-time as a business manager.
Garson, meanwhile, said he “has been pretty much sticking to the rules” as far as the coronavirus goes. He only visits one of his friends. He helps him out, knowing he is going to have cataract surgery soon. Even when Garson is over there, they keep at least six feet of distance between themselves. In this day and age, one can never be too safe.
Garson said the highlights of his days are going to the grocery store, eating, sleeping and, going back to his childhood days, bouncing a tennis ball off the side of a brick wall and fielding ground balls on the return volley. Garson has done this for years, but with no baseball this summer, he has been driving from home at Mount Royal Manor in Duluth to Wade Stadium more lately, taking advantage of the historic ballpark’s gigantic wall and empty parking lot.
“I used to practice fielding ground balls for hours at a time. Now, I do it for about 15 minutes, and I’m tired out,” Garson said, laughing. “It tests my reflexes, and I don’t make many errors, so I’ve still got that.”
Until next year, that’s the best he can do.
“As far as I’m concerned, it can be 30 degrees outside with a wind chill factor of zero, but to me, when I’m in the ballpark, it’s 75 degrees and comfortable,” Garson said. “It’s just like they say in ‘Field of Dreams,’ when you walk in there, old people are like kids again.”