SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Heading to the ballpark, enjoying a hotdog and a cold drink, and taking in a ballgame is a big part of summer life in the United States.
But in many places across the country, minor league baseball stadiums sat empty last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant in Utah, there was no 7th-inning stretch, no rousing renditions of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” and no legendary Produce Races at Smith’s Ballpark where a few fans are pulled from their seats to run around the outfield warning track dressed in full-length fruit and vegetable costumes.
For the first time in 118 years, there was no professional baseball played in Utah in 2020.
“Surreal is a good term to describe it,” says Salt Lakes Bees general manager Marc Amicone, who has been a lifelong baseball player, fan, and team executive to ABC4. “Weird may be the best term. It was interesting.”
As the coronavirus pandemic gripped the United States in spring 2020, the sports world took a major hit. The NBA and NHL famously played the remainder of their seasons in a bubble setting. The NFL played the entire 2020 campaign with strict guidelines for teams and players and held the majority of its games without fans in attendance. Major League Baseball seemed doomed to not have a season at all. It wasn’t until July 23 that MLB began a shortened, 60-game schedule that wrapped in late September.
By the time top-level professional baseball had started in America, it had already been determined at the end of June that the minor leagues wouldn’t play at all in 2020.
For Amicone, who has spent his entire career working in baseball, it was strange to be away from the game.
“I always think we’re spoiled that we get to work in a ballpark, but I really missed being here every day,” he says.
This year, as the pandemic appears to be waning, the Triple-A Bees and Utah’s other remaining pro ball team, the Pioneer League’s Ogden Raptors, are preparing to welcome fans back to their friendly confines and a small sense of normalcy this summer. The University of Utah baseball team has already successfully played a few games at Smith’s Ballpark this month. However, the Orem Owlz, who’ve represented Utah County in the Pioneer League since 2001, will not return for this season, having relocated to Windsor, Colorado.
Of course, there will be some changes to the look and feel of attending a game in person at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City for 2021.
For one, the operations at the stadium are going to be as paperless and cashless as possible, says Amicone. Tickets, parking, and concessions will all be done electronically through smartphones. Even the experience of buying a box of popcorn or a drink at the stadium will be different as fans will be asked to order on their phones from their seats. When the food is ready, they will be notified and able to quickly pick up their order from the closest stand. This process is already in place at Utah Jazz games at Vivint Arena.
Other changes for the Bees management include figuring out how to create a fan-friendly atmosphere with strict guidelines in place for player safety from Major League Baseball. To keep the players healthy and playing ball throughout the season, they will be as “bubbled” as possible with fans in attendance. Areas such as the field level, the player’s clubhouse, and even the player’s buses are off-limits to anyone not on the roster or traveling party. That means the fun elements such as on-field promotions, mascots, and even the famous Produce Race will have to be reimagined.
Most likely, those at Bees games won’t be delighted by a fan in a carrot costume tripping over the bullpen mound on the final stretch of the race that has been a favorite promotion for years.
Amicone tells ABC4 that the team is figuring out a solution that involves showing a recording or something similar on the outfield video board.
Luckily for the Bees, they have maintained their affiliation with the MLB’s Los Angeles Angels, giving the team a steady supply of talented ballplayers on the verge of making it to the big leagues. The Raptors weren’t so fortunate.
After 18 years as a rookie-league affiliate with the Los Angeles Dodgers, receiving the club’s youngest and rawest prospects as they begin their professional journey, the Raptors will play in 2021 as an independent team. The Pioneer League was redesignated as a “partner league” with MLB, meaning the big league teams would cover some costs of operation and install technology to scout the minor league players, but would not furnish the small clubs with players.
Having to fill their roster themselves, the Raptors are going through creative means. In addition to signing some players with a bit of professional experience, the club is also holding a tryout camp May 12-13 at Lindquist Field.
Team president Dave Baggott said in a press release back in November that the team would still be fun to watch and competitive on the field.
“Raptor fans should know that since the Pioneer League will be the only short-season professional league, the quality of play will be better than they have ever seen. There will be no shortage on acquiring talent,” Baggott said in a press release.
Regardless of who will fill the team’s uniforms, or the produce costumes in a pre-recorded video, getting back to the ballpark will be a welcoming experience for many Utahns, including Amicone.
He’s already imagining that opening day on Thursday will be a special one.
“We have some really loyal group of fans, and I’m picturing in my mind right now that it’s going to be a fun, exciting day for all of us to be back in the ballpark, no question.”