Baseball in middle America: Fans are in, autographs are out

By Tim Arango

Forget about everything else for a moment and take a look at this:

The retired No. 8, worn in this city by Roger Maris, Fargo’s revered son, on the facade over first base. The red-white-and-blue bunting draped over the railings. The ballplayers warming up down the foul lines.

The people are finding their seats, and somewhere the big red mascot is getting ready. Any minute now the umpires will arrive, fully dressed and carrying their baseballs and walking straight from the parking lot to the field.

It came late, but here it is: opening day.

The last time the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks played a game was in September.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen in the months to come,” Jack Michaels, the team’s radio man for a quarter-century, barks to his audience. “But all I know is this: 297 days later, fans are in the stands, teams are in the dugouts and baseball is back.”

Major League Baseball will start its pandemic-shortened season this week, but there will be no fans in the stands. The minor league season was canceled, depriving dozens of small towns of baseball this summer. Two prominent independent leagues, the Atlantic League and the Frontier League, are also not playing.

That leaves us with four cities in Middle America — Fargo; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Franklin, Wisc.; and Rosemont, Ill. — where professional baseball is being played in front of fans, cautiously, joyfully, but hardly normally.

After months of uncertainty, the American Association, an independent league where players make about $2,000 a month and whose rosters are filled with former minor leaguers and sprinkled with former big leaguers, began its season over the Fourth of July weekend.

Six teams in four cities. Blocked from hosting games in Canada, the Winnipeg Goldeyes are playing their home games in Fargo, where the dimensions of Newman Outdoor Field are those of Yankee Stadium, an homage to Maris. The St. Paul Saints will play theirs in Sioux Falls, where for a recent series they dressed in a hockey arena that was hosting a Professional Bull Riders competition and walked across a parking lot, cleats crunching on the pavement, to get to the field.

“Right now there are a lot of things to think about,” said Chris Coste, the interim manager of the RedHawks, who has played at every level of professional baseball, from right here in Fargo to the Mexican League to the Philadelphia Phillies. “Fans. Public health. Players’ health. Winning games. It’s almost always just about the baseball on opening day.

“But today it’s about a little more than just baseball.”

A Fresh Start

Just baseball is enough for Nancy and Terry Peterson. They have missed only one opening day in Fargo since 1996, and said getting back to the ballpark, and reclaiming a measure of normalcy and ritual, was worth the risk. But signs of the pandemic are all around: A local distillery, a maker of whiskey and gin, provides hand sanitizer stations; all employees, as well as the umpires, wear masks; every other row of seats is roped off to enforce social distancing.

The Petersons are in line early because the team is selling only a limited number of general admission tickets — about half the stadium’s capacity of 4,500, in accord with virus protocols — and they want to get their usual seats.

Once inside, Terry Peterson is overjoyed: “Baseball is back. Cold beer. The sun is shining.”

In the bottom of the third, Blake Grant-Parks, a former prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays system, crushes the first home run of the year, over the left-field wall. On the field, the RedHawks — heeding warnings to avoid touching one another — are all smiles and awkward, phantom high-fives.

They are also not supposed to spit sunflower seeds or dip tobacco, but if you look closely, you will see that these baseball vices are difficult to break. Signing autographs and tossing foul balls into the stands are also forbidden.

In the bottom of the ninth, Dario Pizzano comes to the plate. A former Ivy League player of the year at Columbia who played at Class AAA for the Seattle Mariners, Pizzano, 29, spent the early months of the pandemic with his fiancée in their Hoboken, N.J. apartment, hoping for a season. In Fargo, he keeps a rally going with a line-drive single to right.

Social distancing is forgotten in the excitement of the moment, now filled with bumping fists and slapping backs. The RedHawks’ rally falls short, but by the time the postgame fireworks begin, and with Bruce Springsteen blaring from the loudspeakers, it felt as if the American summer had been restored.

‘There’s No Script for This’

Each day when the players arrive at the ballpark in Fargo, they meet an intern at the entrance who takes their temperature and reads from a printed sheet. “To the best of your knowledge,” the question begins, “have you had direct close contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 24 hours?”

Every day in the league unfolds against an undercurrent of anxiety.

Already there has been a scare: Two players on the Milwaukee Milkmen tested positive for the coronavirus and a game was canceled. The players were taken from their apartments, or the homes of their host families, including the center fielder who is living with the team’s owner, and quarantined in a hotel until everyone was retested and cleared to play.

“There’s no script for this,” said Duell Higbe, the general manager of the Sioux Falls Canaries. “Nobody’s done this before. We’re rolling with the punches every single day.”

Unlike the major leagues, which can count on revenue from television, playing without fans was never an option for the American Association.

“Zero chance,” said Brad Thom, the president of the RedHawks. “Fans are our lifeblood.”

Even so, each team, no matter how successful the season, is likely to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It’s honestly a disaster,” Thom said. “We’re looking at high-six-figure losses.”

The stadium in Sioux Falls, known as the Birdcage, was built in the late 1960s and has all the asymmetric charms of an old ballpark: odd angles and nooks in the outfield, a grassy berm that juts out past third base above an old-timey scoreboard.

As fans walked in for a recent afternoon game — only a few hundred showed up amid the scorching heat, but they saw their Canaries beat the Saints, 3-0 — the public-address announcer told fans they assumed the risks of contracting the virus at the ballpark. He urged them to obey social distancing “so we can have baseball here at the Birdcage all summer long.”

It took only a few games for the first manager to be ejected for violating social distancing guidelines. That distinction fell on Anthony Barone of the Milkmen, who stepped over the third-base line and argued a bang-bang call at first base.

“You sort of get lost in the game,” he said.

Still Chasing the Dream

K.C. Huth, the center fielder for the Canaries, was working out and selling awnings and shade structures in Dallas when the pandemic hit. His gym closed, and the fields where he took batting practice locked their gates.

“Man, I was hopping fences, I was doing everything I could to get on a patch of grass to get ready,” he said.

A handful of major league players, with guaranteed contracts and money in the bank, have decided not to play this season because of health concerns. In the American Association, sitting out was not a realistic option.

“Players play indie ball because they want to get back to affiliated ball,” Rick Forney, the Winnipeg manager, said. “They are still chasing the dream of getting to the big leagues.”

“These guys, their window is short,” he added.

Leobaldo Pina, a Venezuela native and Fargo’s third baseman, spent the offseason feeding cows and cutting grass on a farm in Pennsylvania. Matt Tomshaw, a RedHawks left-hander, was in major league camp with the Chicago White Sox in March, and also working as a mortgage analyst. Andrew Ely, who rose to Class AA in the Chicago Cubs organization and was Gleyber Torres’ double play partner in rookie ball, is now the shortstop for the Canaries. He also works for a private equity firm based in Los Angeles, researching distressed assets.

There are also other, more pedigreed, players.

Cito Culver, a shortstop for the RedHawks, was the New York Yankees’ first-round pick in 2010, which briefly made him a possible heir apparent to Derek Jeter. Pitcher Bradin Hagens spent four days with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014. Drew Ward was a third-round draft pick and in big-league camp this spring with the Washington Nationals, expecting to start off in the minors but believing “I would have had a chance going up this year.” Now he is living in the Fargo Inn & Suites and hoping to get back.

Almost all of the players have spent years in the minor leagues or independent ball. This season, though, is life at the lowest rungs of baseball as it has never been. There are fewer bus rides, and hardly any nightlife to speak of.

Manager Mike Meyer of the Canaries said he had trouble sleeping on Saturday nights, knowing he would receive the team’s weekly coronavirus test results the next day.

“This is the most anxious and stressed I’ve been ever in my 20-something seasons in baseball,” he said.

For many fans, though, the return of baseball has meant less anxiety in their lives.

Among them is Jerry Bowman, who since 1994 has owned Seat 17, Section R, Row 10 at the Birdcage. Bowman, 70, is one of the few fans who wears a mask to games, where he is in charge of sliding ‘K’ signs down a zip line behind home plate every time a Canaries pitcher strikes out a batter.

“I was surprised and elated” to hear baseball would return, said Bowman, who spent the first weeks of the pandemic watching old Westerns. “It gave me something to do. Being outside, watching baseball. There’s nothing better.”

Just then a visiting batter struck out.

“Excuse me, I have to drop a K,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

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