Duluth Huskies general manager Greg Culver was reached by phone Thursday as he enjoyed temperatures in the high 70s and gentle breezes off the Pacific Ocean.
Culver is in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and while many people are annoyed by work calls while on vacation, Culver never minds taking time to talk baseball.
After taking last summer off, the Huskies have big plans for this coming season, whether COVID-19 is still raging or not. The team announced Wednesday a plan to ensure fans can safely congregate at Wade Stadium in 2021. The Huskies don’t open the season until May 31 at home against Waterloo, but Culver said it’s never too early to start prepping.
“We had to come up with this game plan as if we were going to go live tomorrow,” Culver said. “Is this going to change a little bit in February or March? Sure. We’re looking at making changes right up until May. We’re either going to open up seating, or keep it the way it is. If the state says we can only have 50 fans in each section, then that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have a season next year one way or another. Huskies baseball will be back in 2021.”
Out of what team owner Michael Rosenzweig called “an absolute abundance of caution,” the team will ensure they are following state and local guidelines to make sure they can open the ballpark safely. Currently, that would mean Wade Stadium could seat no more than 900 fans, with the ballpark divided into six sections of no more than 150 fans per section.
Each section would have its own entrance, with additional porta-potty facilities on site. The Huskies also have plans to enact additional cleaning and sanitizing measures for after each game.
Wade Stadium’s inside concourse will be shut down or used as storage because it’s not conducive for social distancing. Meanwhile, things are being moved outside.
The Huskies are looking into possibly having pro shop stands outside in the open air for fans looking to purchase a hat, T-shirt, program or pennant.
“We’re looking at it like we’re going to go tomorrow, so what would we do with 150 fans (per section),” Culver said. “With the vaccines coming out and everything, you still have to understand that our fan base is 60-plus. That’s our demographic. We have an older clientele. We want them to be happy, comfortable, secure and safe. We’re going to ease into this.”
The current plan is for fans in 2021 to remain in their designated sections at Wade Stadium. Every fan will have a seat and section number, and food will be delivered right to their seat.
“The only time you should have to leave your seat is to use the bathroom,” Culver said. “You’ve seen the crowds. Instead of waiting in line, why not let us bring it to you? That’s just the way we have to do it.”
The Huskies are working with FanFood to set up an app that fans can download at the ballpark to place an order and pay using their phones.
“If somebody doesn’t have a cell phone, or has a flip phone and can’t download the app or isn’t that tech savvy, we’re going to have people coming through taking orders,” Culver said. “We’re going to kind of flip-flop the service. You’re going to see more of our staff in the stands, going up and down the aisles, hawking beer and hot dogs and popcorn and stuff.”
That will include service for older Huskies fans like Joe Garson, who religiously eats two chicken sandwiches at every game.
“So for a fan like “Chicken” Joe, we know where he is sitting, we know what he wants and when he wants it, and it will all be taken care of,” Culver said, laughing. “Even if he was the only customer who ordered chicken sandwiches, we’d have chicken sandwiches there. We are so looking forward to taking care of customers in the stands.”
Culver said they looked at how other teams have handled 2020. Even if attendance was limited, NFL and college football teams handled things a certain way.
Prepackaged food and beverages require less handling, straws and lids and the like. Think of a bag or box lunch, with everything you order coming to you in a container.
“We’re looking at it as this: how is it easiest for us to serve our customers and do it the right way, so this is the direction we’re going to go for this year,” Culver said. “You don’t have to miss a pitch.”
The Huskies will no longer serve fountain drinks, and the plan is no keg beer — for now. Before all you barley poppers go storming the Huskies’ compound (yes, Wade Stadium is like a compound, and besides, they’re working from home until April), bottled and canned beverages will be available, with tap beer returning eventually.
Culver said beverage distributors were already phasing out fountain drinks.
“Now with COVID and everything going on, they’re already pushing that further,” Culver said. “To be honest with you, it suits our needs better for us to do that. Will tap beer come back? Sure, so long as everything starts to get back to as normal as it possibly can.”
Some of these changes, however, likely will be permanent.
“If we had to go live tomorrow, we could do 150 fans in each section, with your own bathroom, and your own entrance,” Culver said. “We’ll take care of the food and beverage, you enjoy the game. We’ll take care of you. And if it works, and everybody likes it, we’re going to keep it.”