Before Hartford’s home opener, throngs of shivering fans waited outside Dunkin’ Donuts Park, which had been closed to fans of the hometown nine for more than 600 days. Local news cameras positioned themselves to catch the smiles.
When the gates finally opened, the fans found minor league baseball just as they had left it: in the hands of two giant goats — one lime green, one bright blue; one in a plaid jersey, one covered in polka dots — charged with taking pictures and offering high-fives to overwhelmed children, the same old game as always.
These are the quirks that anchor minor league baseball’s place in the hearts of fans and families. They are largely intact, even after the pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s season and, in so doing, inflicted varying degrees of economic hardship on every team.
Despite the difficulties, those minor league eccentricities emerged again in recent weeks. The Beloit Snappers, awaiting a new ballpark, began to auction off naming rights to Pohlman Field for individual home games, one at a time. The Rocket City Trash Pandas, who had been scheduled to debut that name to fans in Madison, Ala., at the start of the 2020 season, finally did so. The Worcester Red Sox, replacements for Boston’s beloved Class AAA Pawtucket affiliate, opened their new stadium to such fanfare that NESN, the regional network that broadcasts the Red Sox, carried the game live.
And by their home opener in mid-May, the Hartford Yard Goats, Class AA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, had rehired those furloughed earlier in the pandemic. Within minutes of the gates opening, a line of fans extended out of the team store and wound out the stadium. The team already had a year’s worth of promotional items ready to go, a year later than originally scheduled.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin addressed the crowd before the game, greeted by a mixed reception of boos and polite claps until each referenced the return of baseball after the unprecedented hiatus. Everyone cheered for that.
“All of our planning for months and back to last year was planning for [the home opener],” Yard Goats President Tim Restall said. “Once tonight happens, then we start to think about the baseball season. We know how to do that part.”
The pain and uncertainty of the lost season were compounded by Major League Baseball’s decision to take over operations of Minor League Baseball and cut the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120. Longtime minor league cities such as Charleston, W.Va., and Lexington, Ky., were forced to pivot away from affiliated baseball and into new frontiers, joining restructured partner leagues such as the Atlantic League and the American Association.
The shuffle was intended to improve the quality of facilities across the board, limit the grind of travel and increase player salaries, but it also changed short-term plans and longtime traditions. Had the 2020 season been played as scheduled, the Wichita Wind Surge would have spent it as the Class AAA affiliate for the Miami Marlins playing as a geographic outlier in the Pacific Coast League. The Wind Surge began this season as the Class AA affiliate for the Minnesota Twins, playing in the far more geographically palatable Double-A Central. The historic and long-running Pacific Coast League, meanwhile, was replaced by a new-look Triple-A West.
“A hundred-plus years of history in this league are out the door. The record book doesn’t mean anything at this point,” longtime Salt Lake Bees broadcaster Steve Klauke said.
But Klauke said restructured travel does seem to be easing the loads that minor leaguers carry. Instead of short series, most leagues are now playing six-game series with one opponent, beginning on Tuesday and ending on Sunday. Teams have a whole day to travel and a day off they know is coming.
For fans and team executives such as Restall, the Yard Goats president, the uncertainty that predated this season focused more on revenue and regenerating community ties than on exactly who would be playing baseball at what level.
“The baseball part will take care of itself,” Restall said, and for many executives across the minor leagues who scrambled to make ends meet last year, the baseball itself is, indeed, secondary.
But changes to the system made even the baseball part difficult to navigate, and player development staffs throughout MLB are trying to figure out how a year off will affect their young players and how to make up for it. Multiple minor league executives, speaking generally about a small sample size, noted sloppier play at the higher levels earlier than they might have seen in recent years.
“We’ve been talking a lot about baseball instincts. You can … not lose them, but forget some things if you’re away long enough from anything, baseball included,” Yard Goats Manager Chris Denorfia said. “Basically, what we tried to do in the spring was take all the thoughts buried deep in the back of their brains and bring them back to the front.
“No matter how much you try to plan, there are always going to be little things that pop up where you go, ‘Oh, yeah, that happens in baseball.’ We’re taking those as teaching moments. The guys know what to do, but it’s just been a while for those instinctual plays.”
When the 2020 minor league season was canceled, many MLB franchises chose to keep their top prospects at their alternate training site, where they could receive one-on-one coaching and compete against top talent. Lower-level prospects were left to navigate team guidance from afar, on their own, many in their first summers not jam-packed with baseball since they were toddlers.
“Everyone is on the same playing field. It’s not like just our organization has lost the whole year,” said Matt Blood, the Baltimore Orioles’ director of player development.
While many major league executives have been candid regarding concerns about pitching depth at the big league level after the shortened season, minor league staffs are experiencing similar concerns after playing no season at all.
Blood said he thinks the quality of play throughout his system has been solid, but he thinks pitchers — who could throw off a mound and work on their stuff this past summer — may be slightly ahead of hitters, for whom it was harder to simulate at-bats.
But the ripple effects of a lost season and a restructured minor league system will be far clearer after months rather than weeks.
Early on, it has become obvious that the loss of short-season Class A ball to the restructuring means many teams will keep more players at their spring training complexes. And while teams that were pushed out of affiliated ball to partner leagues felt they were losing a piece of their tradition, they seem less out of sight and mind than some might have thought.
The Yard Goats know better than anyone how quickly things can change in minor league baseball.
Just 10 years ago, they were a Class AA affiliate of the Twins. Just six years ago, they were called the Rock Cats and played in New Britain, Conn. Five years ago, they had to play home games on the road because of construction delays at their new stadium in Hartford. Today, theirs is one of the top-rated ballparks and their logo is one of the most popular by merchandise sales in minor league baseball — and their gates are finally open to fans again.