New Britain Bees Manager Ray Guarino wears a mask as a player stands behind in the dugout with the whole first row over the dugout empty during their FCBL game with the Nashua Silver Knights. ©Mark D Phillips
New Britain Bees Manager Ray Guarino wears a mask as a player stands behind in the dugout with the whole first row over the dugout empty during their FCBL game with the Nashua Silver Knights. ©Mark D Phillips

Major League Baseball has approached the crippled 2020 season cautiously – and hilariously – staging practices in fan-free stadiums with canned cheers and laughter pealing out of sound systems in ballparks all over the U.S. The New York Mets have dealt with the crowd-free atmosphere at Citi Field by planting cardboard cutouts of people in the seats behind home plate. We knew Mets fans were routinely deflated, but this is the first time we’ve seen them flatttened.

As the stunted, 60-game season ramps up for its July 23 start, the Toronto Blue Jays have been banned by the Canadian government from playing in their home field, Toronto’s Rodgers Centre, forcing the team to scramble for contingency plans south of the border.

This is sports in the age of COVID-19. As football and hockey teams prepare for a fanless experience, in New England, something approaching a return to normalcy — socially distanced and face-mask-wearing normalcy, naturally — is happening.

Since July 2, the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, now in its 10th season, has been holding games, with a reduced number of fans in the seats, in six venues from New Britain, Connecticut, to Nashua, New Hampshire. (Only the Pittsfield Suns of Massachusetts are not competing this summer.)

The teams feature elite college players from across the country, honing their skills during this trying time. With minor league seasons canceled and no Cape Cod League, the FCBL has managed to keep the sport alive in New England. The fans who were onsite were as happy as the players. New Britain Stadium has a beautiful bar deck with ample space to social distance. On a gorgeous night with the sound of baseballs exploding from bats, it was the field of dreams. With caveats.

 

New Britain Stadium at 25% capacity for the opening game of the 2020 Futures Collegiate Baseball League with the New Britain Bees hosting the Nashua Silver Knights on July 2, 2020, as the first sport to open during Covid-19. ©Mark D Phillips
New Britain Stadium at 25% capacity for the opening game of the 2020 Futures Collegiate Baseball League with the New Britain Bees hosting the Nashua Silver Knights on July 2, 2020, as the first sport to open during Covid-19. ©Mark D Phillips

 

North Shore Navigators manager Bob Macaluso challenges a call with the umpire during their FCBL game with the Nashua Silver Knights at Holman Stadium in Nashua, NH. ©Mark D Phillips
North Shore Navigators manager Bob Macaluso challenges a call with the umpire during their FCBL game with the Nashua Silver Knights at Holman Stadium in Nashua, NH. ©Mark D Phillips

Health and safety rules are strictly enforced – groups of seats are taped off to keep fans apart from each other and face masks are required to be worn by people moving about the stadiums. Concession stands have been altered drastically with shields lining the front of the counters. Gone are shared condiments, replaced by portion packs of things like ketchup, mustard and relish. Hot dogs are individually wrapped, cooked up and served by masked and glove-wearing workers. Even the Worcester Bravehearts’ team mascot, Jake the Lion, wears a mask on his face while entertaining kids.

And guess what? It’s working.

On recent trips to ball parks in Connecticut and New Hampshire to see the college-age athletes strut their stuff, there was no fear in the stands. Only baseball, baby!

 

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