The crack of the bat and the slap of the ball falling into the glove were heard once again as minor league baseball returned to the 209.
The Modesto Nuts and the Stockton Ports kicked off their 2021 season with a match-up May 4 in Modesto. The season will continue through September, but will likely not include playoffs and a championship.
“Our organization is ecstatic to finally bring professional baseball back to the Central Valley after such a tough year,” said Modesto Nuts General Manager Zach Brockman.
“We are excited to unveil our 2021 season schedule and to have professional baseball back at Banner Island Ballpark,” said Ports President Pat Filippone.
The return of baseball does signify a step towards normalcy, but this will be a season that will look unlike any other season because of the various coronavirus precautions.
Both Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties are currently in the red tier (at the time of publication), so the teams will have to limit attendance to 20% of capacity. Tickets will have to be purchased in advance, social distancing will be done through seating pods, and masks will be required. This season when guests want to snack on a hot dog or nachos, they’ll have to order it on a mobile device and it will be delivered to their seat.
“We have to do everything we can to avoid lines,” Brockman said. “I think guests are actually going to like this service a lot and it might be one we keep long-term.”
The seventh-inning stretch will remain, but the tradition of the first pitch will have to be set aside this season.
Fans of minor league baseball revel in the ease of getting to know the players in a way that is not always available at major league stadiums. It’s not unusual to see fans talking to their favorite players and getting autographs before a game. But this season, because of COVID-19 guidelines the teams have to restrict player access to fans. However, they are looking at some creative alternatives.
“We will try to build a bridge from fans to players since they won’t be able to come up and meet face to face,” Filippone said.
“We’re looking at using social media more to keep that connection active,” Brockman said.
Minor league baseball offers more than just a chance to see new and young players in the early stages of their careers. It’s an opportunity to have some unique fun without having to spend a lot of money.
“For our county, I can’t see a more valuable venue in the summer,” Brockman said. “Everyone can come out and enjoy a baseball game even if you’re not a baseball fan. The majority of our fans who come out probably couldn’t tell you the final score of the game, but they know they had fun and it didn’t break the bank for them.”
The Seattle Mariners made a complete purchase of the Modesto Nuts this year and have already made some improvements at the stadium, most notably by replacing the infield and laying new sod.
“Our organization is overjoyed and excited to now be exclusively owned by the Seattle Mariners,” Brockman said. “Since our initial partnership in 2016 they have been nothing short of extraordinary and I’m sure our new arrangement will help us grow significantly in the future.”
The Stockton Ports are continuing their partnership with the Oakland A’s.
“The Stockton Ports would like to thank the Oakland Athletics for the invitation to continue our partnership as an affiliated club. We have had a strong partnership for 16 years and look forward to many more as a member of the California League,” Filippone said. “Being so close, fans have the benefit of watching them here and then if they get called up, going up and seeing them in Oakland.”
Earlier this year Major League Baseball completed a realignment of minor league teams and this season California will be a low Class-A league. In addition to the Ports and Nuts, the league will include the San Jose Giants, Visalia Rawhide, Inland Empire 66ers, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Lake Elsinore Storm, and the Fresno Grizzlies.
“The change will give fans a chance to see some of the higher draft picks and the younger guys that end up being big stars,” Filippone said.
The 2021 minor league baseball season will definitely look unlike any previous season, but the return does give the 209 a big morale boost.
“For this community and any community in this country, coming back means so much,” Filippone said. “Your local minor league baseball team is as American as it gets. It’s great that we can have fans come back to the stadium and we can all rally together.”